Monastic Conversations23 May 2022
Hesychasm is a spiritual phenomenon, the quintessence of the ascetical tradition in the Orthodox Church. Through the practice of hesychasm, the soul of man is ‘fattened’ by the grace of God, it receives a hypostasis. The martyrs offer their life to God and enter Paradise in one instant. Whilst in hesychasm, man tries to free himself from earthly cares so as to live continually in the presence of God, to fatten his soul day by day with the energy of God. By means of the ‘one-phrase’ Jesus Prayer practiced in hesychia, we are continually in contact with the energy of God, as Saint Gregory Palamas explains.
We do not all have to become hermits and anchorites, but we all must use wisely the time that God has given us. Saint Sophrony always spoke to us about this principle in ascetical life: if man confines himself to that which is absolutely necessary, then God gives him the very precious luxury to have plenty of time for spiritual work. He will be able to dedicate nearly all the time to working on his relationship with God, perfecting holiness in His fear until he arrives at the glorious and calm haven of the immaculate love of Christ which makes man incorruptible.
We all have functions in our monasteries and sometimes they can be very demanding. Sometimes we may even work for twelve hours a day, but when it is because of the necessity of life, it is all blessed. If we use properly our time for what is needed, God will grant us even more, and we will have time for all the things we need for our salvation. In hesychasm, we strive to stand unceasingly in the presence of God calling upon His holy Name with the mind in the heart, and if we put all our trust in the providence of God, we receive this blessing to abide in His presence wherever we are and whatever we do.
Yet, we must not forget what Father Sophrony told us: ‘Do not think that if you acquire unceasing prayer, you have become perfect and holy. Unceasing prayer is only the beginning, not the perfection of spiritual life.’ Afterwards I reflected on his words and I realised that, indeed, unceasing prayer is only the beginning, because by calling continually upon the Name of God, we simply confess that without Him we can do nothing, that is, we acquire the fundamental gift of spiritual poverty, which is the first step on the ladder to divine perfection depicted by the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
Question: How can we escape in a definitive way from the spirit of this world that tries to seduce us at all times?
Answer: In the practice of unceasing prayer, we shut the entry to the thoughts from the enemy and to all the impressions of this world that assail our spirit. The enemy hates the spiritual work of hesychia and wants either to prevent it completely or at least blur it, so as to deprive man of its great benefit. He knows that there is no more beautiful way towards sanctification than the practice of unceasing prayer. We stop every thought and every impression that comes from outside, not only by calling upon the Name of Christ, not only by resisting them through prayer, but also by building a spiritual state within us. This brings such strength to our heart that the thoughts of the enemy simply bounce off, sometimes even before we see what kind of thoughts they are. We feel the approach of the thoughts of the enemy and the heart is alert, wakes up and shuts the entries of the senses and of the whole being of man, protecting him. Man becomes like a submarine wherein not one drop of water can penetrate. This spiritual state is the best positive way to preserve man from every foreign influence, to keep his spirit immersed in the Spirit of God.
Question: Why is instability so very present in our life?
Answer: We do not need stability. The instability that we witness in our life is there for a purpose, namely, to teach us a great mystery. Every time we go down, we are humbled because we feel desolate, but if we accept this humility, the Lord gives us grace to go up. We do not remain up, we again go down, and we desperately need to learn this path, going from down below to a height of the presence of God, to the joy of being in His presence and delighting in His grace. This is the path going from darkness into light, from death into life, from desolation to the bliss of being united to the Lord in the Spirit. It is the path of our personal Easter, which we live every time we approach the Person of Christ. When we become accustomed to traverse this way from down below to a place nearer to the Person of Christ, we are initiated into this mystery of the Easter of Christ.
Therefore, we must not be despondent or disheartened when we are down. We do not remain down, but we take advantage of the great privilege of making a new beginning. We must not diminish our inspiration, neither lose this continual increase, this continual rising to the presence of the Lord, so that we may continually sing a new song of gratitude and love to the Lord. We think that it is a great calamity to be unstable, and sometimes we become desolate, and our heart is in pieces. However, this is the moment to cry out from our heart and confess to God our poverty and desolation. Then, the Lord will unfailingly extend His hand and lead us on the way. We will make a new beginning, receive a new grace and sing a new song.
Certainly, we cannot avoid going up and down, but we can try and make our stay down as short as possible. When we are down, we try to repent quickly and use every means to attract the grace of God, so as to be lifted up again. Whether we are down or up, there is a great privilege for us which remains constant: the Lord is working on us. We are material in His hands, and He is trying to mould us into a perfect image of His goodness and glory. What is important is not whether we are down or up, but, whether we live or die, to be pleasing to the Lord.
Question: Is the interest in science, art or philosophy a sign of spiritual emptiness?
Answer: It depends. In the beginning of our life, it may be a legitimate quest. We try to find something perfect, divine, in everything we do. For example, if we are artists, we try to catch the eternal through our art. If we are philosophers, we try to enter the metaphysical mind in order to perceive the truth. Either through art, science or philosophy, what we try to catch is the eternal. However, the Eternal is a Person, and we cannot catch Him. We can only receive Him, if the Eternal is well-pleased to be given to us. This is what we do in our life in Christ. The Eternal came to us, the perfection of the Lamb of God was manifested before our eyes. Yet, if we become monks and we try to enrich our life by turning to sciences and philosophies, this will bring a desolation to our life, because there is nothing for us there. For us life is only in Christ. Christ is the life of the world, and He gave Himself to us. The perfect gift of His live is already offered to us.
Question: When Jacob was praying all night, he said to God, ‘I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me’ and Christ said, ‘The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence.’ As monastics, however, we renounce our will and surrender without insisting. Are not the two contradictory?
Answer: It is the same. Persevering in prayer, persevering in making the will of God bend towards us, is the same with surrendering to God’s will. Do not think that surrendering to the will of God is passive. When we surrender to the will of God, we make sure that every thought in us and all energy, all our mind and all our heart are unshakeable in our firm confidence and trust in the mercy of God. We concentrate all the powers of our soul in this determination, and we pray with this tension in a mighty uprush towards God. It is not a passive surrendering without any activity in our heart and mind. It is accompanied with the momentum of prayer. When we insist in our petitions to the Lord, God may not give us what we ask, but if we accept it, we will feel great comfort and we will be even happy that we were defeated. Although we have been denied the request of our prayer because it was not the primary will of God, yet, by receiving a word from Him, we feel comforted.
The Lord blessed Jacob’s persistence in prayer and said a great word that has remained as a rule of life for us all: ‘Jacob, because you have been strong with God, you will be strong with men.’ In other words, ‘because you have shown firm confidence in the mercy of God and in His help, you will be blessed in everything you do.’ Jacob’s real victory was the blessing of hearing the voice of God. At that moment, together with His voice, he received a state, wherein he felt strong. He was not afraid of Esau and those that were coming to kill him, but while approaching them he made seven earthly prostrations. Then the heart of the beastly Esau was softened, and instead of killing him he fell on his neck and wept.
We see therefore that, although Jacob was insisting in his demand before God, what mattered was that he was seeking for a true contact with God and he found it through humility. The next day he humbled himself again before Esau, and because of that humility everything changed. Thus, even when we persevere and insist in a certain petition before God, we must be ready to hear His voice, whether He grants our petition or not. Sometimes it may seem to us that the voice of God is very strange and does not make sense, but it brings deliverance.
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We often describe monastic life as an imitation of angelic life. This is especially because the humility of this life resembles the humility of angels. Indeed, for such a gift one needs angelic humility. The monk gives everything he has, and yet there still remains one thing for him to do: to be assimilated in the humble way of Christ in order to have Him as a companion and fellow-traveller. When the Lord gave the greatest commandment in the New Testament, He had in mind the perfection of the way given to monks. They sacrifice all things, but they still lack one thing to attain to perfection: the mindfulness of their uselessness. Only then will their life be a true imitation of the angelic estate. The angels are dedicated to eternal glorification of God and yet they never lose their utter humility, covering their created nature with their wings. Here is a similarity between the angelic life and monastic life: just as the angels always keep the mindfulness of their createdness in order to praise God with ceaseless glorification and songs of praise, so also monks strive to always keep the mindfulness of their uselessness.
We do not go to the monastery to make a career or achieve something of this world. We go there to learn: to learn the humility of the way of Christ and the humility of the angelic estate.
Question: Is honouring and offering hospitality to guests an imitation of the way of Christ?
Answer: Particularly for us monks, the way of Christ must be our primary purpose in all things. We should deem ourselves lower than the people who come to us. We must put them above us and honour them more than ourselves. They come to us in the name of God, and when we give them spiritual rest, God is well-pleased and blesses life in this place. Everything we do in the name of God has eternal dimensions and an eternal value. Saint Seraphim said that even to sweep the House of God once has an eternal reward. The same is true if we contribute even a little to the salvation of these people. Some even come to experience the grace of God and the enlargement of the heart to a great extent and acquire indescribable humility that puts us to shame. If we knew how God acts in their life, we would be all full of reverence and awe before them.
Question: What can we do when we wound people involuntarily?
Answer: We try to humble ourselves before them. We must not be eager to teach them because it may be too much for the state they are in. If we receive and support them with humility, God will finally lead them to someone or to Himself directly, and He will make them stand. As we have said before, the priests and the bishops in the Church are second-class citizens and the first-class citizens are the people that come to them in the name of God to receive their service for salvation. Indeed, ‘he who serves is greater than him who sits at meat.’ Whereas, if we are ambitious and seek for power and high places, we are not even Christians, we are like the heathen. We must be very careful when we receive people not to wound them, not to offend them. They demand nothing. A smile and a good heart is more than enough to make them feel welcome. Father Sophrony said: ‘The secret is to give them a warm welcome and a warm farewell. During their stay, allow them to live as they can and as they want. Do not try to correct them. They see how we live, and they will do as much as they can to follow.’ If we preach, it means we have no humility, unless this ministry has been delegated to us by the Church. Whereas if we accept people as they are, we are humble. Father Sophrony also said: ‘When each of you came to me, you were walking with the feet in the air and the head on the ground, but with time you learned to walk upright and now you can even teach others. Leave the people free, they will find their way.’
If we preach to them, we can usurp the work of the spiritual father. Of course, it is not absolute. We may say a humble and loving word of consolation when the people are in utter humility, until they unite with a spiritual father, until they receive this connection. Yet, much care is needed because there is a great danger. Saint Sophrony told me one day: ‘There is the problem: How can you teach others and at the same time keep the consciousness that you are worse than all?’ The desirable consciousness for the monk is to put himself under all in the image of Christ, Who placed Himself at the bottom of the inverted pyramid. Only then will he have a true word of consolation, having himself known the pain of this downward path. If we make remarks easily, if we teach readily, we lost humility. The secret is to give them a warm welcome and a warm farewell, and God will do the rest. Be mindful to provoke nothing negative in them, and they will find their way themselves. We are not the saviours of the world. ‘Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Saviour is given,’ we sing at Christmas.