Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why our intention to correct ourselves and lead a holy life remains without result ( Metropolitan Gregory of Novgorod )

The first and foremost reason why our intention to correct ourselves and lead a holy life remains without result lies in the fact that our intention is often too vague and indefinite.
A certain sinner, for example, says to himself: “It’s high time for me to stop sinning, time to mend my ways! I repent! I’ll stop sinning!” The intention is quite indefinite. And because of this, although it might be sincere, it is unreliable and may not achieve the desired correction.
He who has a sincere desire to amend himself must first of all determine exactly what it is that must be corrected. He must determine what his greatest sin is and what means he must use against it, and what dangers he must avoid so as not to fall into it again, since it has become a habit, a part of his life. All this thought and self-examination must come first and only then should a resolve be made, and that resolve should be specific as, for example: “Enough is enough! With God’s help I am no longer going to fall into such-and-such a sin; I’m going to break this bad habit; I’m no longer going to associate with those particular people who encourage me in this habit; I’m going to break off that unhealthy relationship; I’m going to use such-and-such means against this sin; I’m going to arm myself and muster all my forces against it when it begins again to tempt me.”
The same thing must also be said about the resolution to lead a righteous life. By no means is it enough to content oneself simply by stating the following resolve: “From this time forth I’m going to lead a God-pleasing life.” Such a resolution is not definite enough, and although it may have come from the heart, it is doubtful whether it will have any effect.
He who desires to abandon a life of sin and live a righteous life must first of all examine which obligations he has most difficulty in fulfilling and does not like to fulfill; what exactly hinders their fulfillment; what he must do, what means he must employ to fulfill them more readily. Having done this, he must make a specific resolve, as for example: “Now, with God’s help I will try hard to fulfill this obligation which until now I have done so poorly; I will apply myself to using such-and-such means towards its fulfillment. For example, when someone offends me I will be more patient; I won’t start using insulting and shameful language, or better yet, I won’t answer back at all; in such-and such company I’ll be more careful in what I say; at such-and-such times I’ll try to pray fervently, something I have not done up to now.., and so on.”
In general, the more definite one’s intention to change one’s sinful life and live righteously, the more it will suit the particular circumstances, the state of one’s soul, one’s relationship with others, etc., and the more hope there is of its bringing it into reality. When something is so definite one can more easily direct one’s thoughts and one’s strength to one subject and thus, of course, more easily achieve the desired goal.
Another reason why our good intentions fail, is because we do not hold firmly enough to our resolve. Scarcely two or three days pass by after our having made our resolution and we, in our normal daily routine of life amidst our worldly cares and pursuits, have already forgotten our intention, although at the time it was made with proper firmness of purpose. For this reason, if we truly wish our good intention to be realized, then each of us, every morning after our morning prayers, must immediately bring to mind and renew our resolution, saying in our hearts: “I promised God to turn away from this particular sin; I really wanted to fulfill this obligation; I must keep my promise!” Having renewed in this way our good intention, we must diligently pray to God that He would grant us the necessary strength to carry it out.
Likewise, our intention must be renewed in this way throughout the course of the day. And when evening comes, we should never go to sleep without having first examined our hearts to see how we have spent the day: did we keep our promise to God? And if it happens that we went against our resolve, against our promise, then we must immediately ask God’s forgiveness, and once again renew our resolve and carefully watch over ourselves. This is the way in which those people act who are concerned for the salvation of their souls, and in this way they attain salvation!
The third reason we fail in our intention to lead a better life, is our excessive fear of the difficulties connected with such an undertaking. A holy life is not attained without work, without sufferings and difficulties; it often takes a prolonged and fierce battle. We must withdraw from occasions to sin, of which there are so many. We must sacrifice various enjoyments which are so pleasant, abandon many worldly pursuits which make life interesting, and endure many unpleasant things which because of our self-love are often so difficult to bear.
For example, let us suppose that we resolved to withdraw from our natural inclination to become angry. In order to turn away from anger we must quietly endure a lot of what is to us almost unbearable, and to which our usual response would have been a stream of crude words; sometimes we must not justify ourselves even when we are in the right; often we must be silent when we feel the urge to speak; often we must give in to others even when the occasion does not demand it; we must often bear the offenses of others and not reveal our irritation; often force ourselves to patiently endure when we are slandered or laughed at like fools and cowards. All this we must endure if we truly desire to realize our intention to withdraw from anger.
Amidst all the difficulties of keeping oneself from anger or any other sin which manifests itself as particularly great, our soul often falls into despondency and all our strength seems to evaporate. In such cases we must immediately bring to mind various sacred truths and experiences which are able to restore our former spirit, our former strength, and give us hope of abandoning the sin from which we decided to turn away. Thus we must remember that no matter how weak a man is, with God’s help he can do and endure all things if only he truly desires and uses it; this is accomplished through the strength that is granted by God.
We must remember the millions of righteous ones, who have gone before us and their self-denial, patience and endurance which they left as an example for us and for the whole world. We must remember that, above all, God desires our correction, and because of this, knowing our weakness and our needs, He will unfailingly come to our aid if only we turn to Him with fervent prayer and make use of the means and the power which He has given to us.
We must remember that the difficulties which invariably accompany any important undertaking are intimidating only to the lazy and faint-hearted; that only the first steps along the path of correction are unpleasant and difficult; that the farther one goes along such a path the easier and less painful it becomes; that any victory which we gain over our enemy makes us much stronger and better able to endure any further onslaughts. We must more often remind ourselves of the feeling of peace and satisfaction we shall experience when in the last days and hours of our life we look back at our past, at the difficulties we have heroically overcome, at the many sufferings borne with Christian patience, at the countless temptations conquered by our love for God, at all the noble deeds which we performed in secret before God’s eyes alone, at all the favors which we showed our fellow man, at the faithfulness with which we fulfilled our obligations, often forcing ourselves to the utmost to do this.
Finally, we must more often remind ourselves that for all this we will be rewarded by so much in the life of the age to come that all the difficulties which we overcome here in this life, all the sufferings which we endure in this age for the sake of a righteous life, will appear to us much smaller; in fact, they will appear insignificant, in comparison with the heavenly rewards.
O, Almighty God! Now we count each minute of trial and suffering and we rarely consider the blessed eternity which delights the souls of Thy righteous and faithful servants. Brother! In your striving towards a God-pleasing life, when you weigh your earthly difficulties and grief, place more often on the scale this eternity! It will outweigh all your trials, all the pleasures of worldly pursuits, pleasures and enjoyments.
The fourth reason that our resolution to lead a better life often fails, lies in the fact that we want immediately to become saints. Many people, when they once feel an aversion to their sinful behavior, make a firm resolve to change their ways and place a good beginning towards this reform; but because this doesn’t happen as quickly as they would like, and whether by habit or rashness they often fall into their old sins, they lose heart and come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for them to change their ways.
Brother! Sister! People don’t become saints overnight. Our old man does not easily yield to being transformed into the new man. A big tree is not felled by a single stroke of the ax. So it is with each evil passion which’ is so firmly rooted in us. The way to perfection or to spiritual maturity is almost always unnoticeable, just as are so many things in nature.
A spiritual man passes through various stages of growth, just like the physical man. Much time is spent in childhood before reaching the fullness and strength of manhood. There is a long period of weakness, and only then does one become stronger and stronger, until finally one becomes a man. Only at this age is one capable of doing what is proper to a man. Likewise, a ripened ear of corn is at first only a seed, then a small blade of grass, then a stalk, and finally an ear of corn; but even this ear is not ripe all at once, but grows, then flowers, then it tassels and only then does it become ripe. The same is true of a righteous, life! Even the best man in the world does not suddenly become a saint. His perfection for the most part develops slowly and only little by little. Good earth which accepts into itself a good seed brings forth fruit, says the Lord, in patience. (Lk 8:15).
To fall, of course, is not good, and it were better not to; but he who falls and then quickly gets up, becomes wiser and more careful, renews his good intention, fervently prays to God for new strength to attain a righteous life. Falls are not such a hindrance for such a man on the path to perfection. At the time of his fall, when he falleth, he shall find a stay, i.e., strength (Sir 3:31) and like the Apostle Paul, strikes ahead towards the mark of the prize of the high calling, forgetting those things which are behind. (Phil 3:13).
The above, then, are some of the reasons why our good intentions to turn away from sin and lead a better life are often unfulfilled. Let us avoid these pitfalls; let us try to make our resolution as definite as possible; let us remember more often and continually to renew our decision, and let us not become faint-hearted if we do not at once reach perfection, but let us courageously surmount the difficulties we meet along the way in firm hope of God’s help.

From “The Conversations of Metropolitan Gregory of Novgorod,” translated from the monthly periodical of St. Panteleimon’s Monastery on Mt. Athos, January 1899, pp. 15-19.

A Tale of Falling and Repentance

By Abba John of Lycus (from “The Lausiac History,” by St. Palladius)

There was a monk who lived in the desert, conducting himself properly and scrupulously for many years. When he was already getting to be quite elderly, he was severely tested by the wiles of the demons. His usual practice consisted of passing his days in silence, with many prayers and psalms and periods of contemplation. He had clear insights into many divine visions, sometimes waking, and sometimes even when asleep, although he actually slept hardly at all, living a life apart from the body. He did not till the ground, he took no thought for the necessities of life, and he cultivated no garden to supply his bodily needs. Nor did he catch birds or hunt any other animal, but full of the faith in which he had abandoned human community, he cared nothing for whether or not his body would be nourished. Forgetful of all else, he was sustained solely by his desire for God, waiting for his call to depart from this world, feeding above all on these things which cannot be perceived with the senses.
Throughout all this time, his body did not waste or show any ill effects, nor was he gloomy in spirit, but he continued to appear his normal attractive self. And God truly honored him indeed, for after a due interval of time He supplied his table with bread for two or three days, not just apparently but actually, for him to use. He would go into his inner room when he felt the pangs of hunger and find this food there. And having praised God and taken some food, he would again sing psalms, persevering in prayers and contemplation, growing daily, giving himself to the pursuit of virtue in hope of the future. He went on progressing more and more, until he almost got to the stage of putting his trust in his own powers of improvement and thereby came to his downfall, almost perishing in the temptations which then came upon him.
His thoughts had arrived at such a pass that he was little by little imprudently beginning to think more of himself than anyone else, and that he possessed much more than other men, and for this reason he began to put his trust solely in himself. Not long after he first thought like this, his vigilance relaxed slightly, but so little that he did not even notice that there had been any relaxation. But his negligence grew until it progressed to the extent that he could not fail but notice it. He was late in waking up to sing psalms, his prayers became shorter, his psalm singing did not last so long, his soul said to him that he needed to rest (and his mind agreed with that), his thoughts wandered and scattered, his secret meditations were spiritless.
But the impetus of his earlier routine still motivated him, and kept him safe for a while, so that when he went in after his usual prayers of an evening, he still found the bread supplied by God on his table and refreshed himself accordingly. But he still did not cut off his unworthy thoughts, he despised the idea that his soul was being damaged; he made no attempt to seek a remedy for these evils. Little by little he fell into omitting many of the things which he ought to have been doing. In thought he began to develop a desire for human company.
The next day he put a temporary restraint on himself, and returned to his usual exercises, but after he had prayed and sung his psalms, he went into the storeroom and found that the bread placed there was not so well baked or wholesome as usual, but was dirty and polluted. He wondered about this and was very sad about it, but nevertheless picked it up and ate it.
Came the third night and with it a third evil. For thoughts suddenly erupted in his mind, activating his memory so much that he imagined there was a woman lying with him. This image persisted in front of his eyes, and he actively encouraged it. But on this third day he went out to his work and his prayers and his psalms, although his mind was not clean anymore, and strayed frequently. He lifted up his eyes to the heavens, turning them this way and that, but the images in his memory prevented his work from being unspoiled. In the evening when he returned feeling hungry, he found that the bread looked as if it had been chewed by mice or dogs, and the scraps left over were dried up as if left outside.
He began to groan and weep, but not so much as to make him want to correct his faults. Having eaten less than he would have wished, he prepared himself for rest, but at once his thoughts went wild, dancing around in every direction, battling for possession of his mind, and taking it captive into uncleanness. He got up and began to walk towards the inhabited regions, walking through the desert by night. Daylight came and he was still a long way off from any habitation. He began to be overcome by the heat and felt very tired. He gazed around him in a complete circle, and saw at some distance what appeared to be a monastery where he might go in and get some refreshment. And so it was. He was accepted in by some good and faithful brothers, who treated him as a real father and washed his face and his feet. They prayed with him, put food before him, and invited him most kindly to partake of what they were offering him.
After he had eaten, the brothers asked him for a word of salvation, and what means there were of being able to be safe from the wiles of the devil, and how to overcome unclean thoughts. Like a father admonishing his sons, he urged them to be strong and constant in their labors in order to arrive quickly to a state of being at peace. He discussed many other aspects of their discipline with them and helped them greatly.
When he had finished he thought for a while and marveled at how he was giving advice to others without looking to himself and trying to amend. He acknowledged he was beaten and straightaway went back to the desert, weeping for himself, and saying, “Unless the Lord had been my helper my soul had remained in hell. (Pss 94:17). I have almost been overcome by evil. They have brought me back to earth.” Thus were fulfilled in him the words, A brother who is helped by a brother is like a city built up on high, whose wall cannot be breached. (Prov 18:19). Whereas before he used to spend all his time without doing any physical work, now he was deprived of the bread provided by the Lord and labored for his daily bread. And when he had shut himself up in his inner room and covered himself in sackcloth and ashes, he did not get up from the ground or cease from weeping until he had heard the voice of the angel saying to him in a dream, The Lord has accepted your repentance and has had mercy on you. From now on live in such a way that you will not be deceived. The brothers you gave advice to will come to you and will show the high opinion they have of you. Accept them, live with them, and give thanks to God always.
I have told you these things, my sons, that you may always cultivate humility and be seen to do so in small things as in great. This was the first of the Savior’s precepts, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3). And do not be deceived by the demons, stirring you up with visions and fantasies. If anyone approaches you, whether brother, friend, woman, father, teacher, mother or sister, first lift up your hands in prayer. If they are fantasies, they will flee. And if either demons or human beings would deceive you by agreeing with you and flattering you, don’t listen to them or get carried away by them. For the demons would often try to deceive me at night also, preventing me from praying, disturbing my peace, presenting fantasies to me the whole night through, and mockingly prostrating themselves in the morning, saying, “Forgive us, abba, for giving you such hard work all night.” I just say to them, Depart from me, all you who work evil, do not put the servant of the Lord to the test. (Pss 6:8).
Do likewise, O my sons, seek peace. Direct your whole self always towards contemplation, begging God that your mind may be purified. Anyone practicing his faith in the world may also be a good workman, engaged in doing good, showing humanity and pity, hospitality and charity, giving alms, blessing those who come to him, helping those in difficulties and avoiding giving offence to anyone.
Such a person is to be commended, for he keeps the commandments and gets things done, even while busy with earthly affairs. But a greater and more excellent thing is to be turned towards contemplation, given not to action but to thought, leaving to others the production of material goods. Denying himself he will contemplate heavenly things, completely forgetful of self, standing before the God of all completely free and unencumbered, turning away for no other consideration whatsoever. Someone like this may not yet enjoy God yet turns always towards God in eager songs of praise.
I know someone in the desert who never tasted earthly food for a space of ten years. An angel fed him every third day with heavenly food, placing it directly into his mouth. To him it was as good as food and drink. I know also that the demons came to this man in the form of fantasies, showing him heavenly armies, chariots of fire, a crowd of followers, as if some king were coming, and saying, “You have done all things well and virtuously, O Man. All you need now is to worship me and I will take you up like Elias.” But the monk replied, “Daily I worship my King and Savior, but if he were here now that is not a demand that he would make of me.” From the bottom of his heart he then cried, “God is my Lord and King whom I ever adore. My king you are not.” And the vision vanished immediately. Unlike some, he strove to keep secret his way of life and the things he did. It was the fathers with him who said that he had seen these things.
These and many other things the blessed John told us, nourishing our souls up to the ninth hour for three days. And as he blessed us, bidding us go in peace, he also gave us a prophecy. “It has been announced today in Alexandria,” he said, “that the most devout Theodosius has won a victory over the tyrant Eugenius, [in the year 394] who has died his own well-deserved death”, which came to pass exactly as he had said.
We were also aware of a great number of monks who were with him in the church, like a great choir of the righteous, dressed in white robes, glorifying God in fervent psalms. After we saw many other fathers some brothers came and told us that the blessed John had died a wonderful death. For he had given orders that no one should visit him for three days, during which he passed away as he knelt in prayer into the presence of God, to whom be glory for ever.