Πέμπτη, 29 Νοεμβρίου 2007


Way of the Ascetics

By Tito Colliander


The "Way of the Ascetics" is an introduction to the narrow way that leads to life. It is a simple yet profound exposition of the spiritual life taught by the Orthodox Church for two thousand years. It is a portal to the vast spiritual experience of the desert fathers, and an insight into the spiritual lives of the saints. Reminiscent of the Ladder of St. John Climacus, "Way of the Ascetics" compells us to again begin the struggle to climb away from the world to the Kingdom of Heaven

In our era of new-age spirituality and homemade religion, the simple patristic style of this work is consoling. In our age of spiritual naivet�, the simple and understandable instructions offered herein are enlightening and inspiring. We offer this text here on the internet for the first time, so that all spiritual neophytes in need of simple and easy to follow instructions may once again set out on the time-tested way that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Note from the Author

This work is based on the holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church and consists largely of direct or freely rendered extracts from their writings, together with some necessary interpretation and practical application.

Scriptural quotations are from the Authorized Version, except those from the Psalms, which follow the Prayer Book Psalter.


Chapter Twelve: ON OBEDIENCE
Chapter Thirteen: ON PROGRESS IN DEPTH
Chapter Fifteen: ON PRAYER
Chapter Sixteen: ON PRAYER
Chapter Seventeen: ON PRAYER
Chapter Eighteen: ON PRAYER
Chapter Twenty: ON FASTING
Chapter Twenty-Three: ON TIMES OF DARKNESS
Chapter Twenty-Five: ON THE JESUS PRAYER



STRIPPED of all knowledge, lacking in every good thought or deed, without memory from the past or wish for the future, as useless as a worn-out rag, unfeeling as a stone in the path, corroded as a worm-eaten mushroom in the woods, mortal as a fish on the shore and grieved to tears over this wretched plight of yours, thus you will stand in prayer before the Almighty, your judge and Creator and Father, your Saviour and Master, the Spirit of Truth and Giver of Life; and like the Prodigal Son you will stammer out of the depths of your impotency: Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son (Luke 15:21). Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

You know your impotence and let yourself lie like a grain of dust before the Almighty, and out of your wretchedness grows love to your fellow men as those created by the Lord and aglow with Him. He in His unfathomable being takes notice of them; it is enough for you to offer everything for them.

The strange thing has now come to pass that the deeper you pressed into your own heart, the farther and higher you climbed out of yourself. The outward conditions of your life are the same: you wash dishes and care for the children, you go to work, draw your salary and pay your taxes. You do everything pertaining to your external life as a person in a society, since there is no chance of leaving it. But you have resigned yourself. You have given away one thing in order to receive another.

... And if I have Thee, what more do I ask on earth? Nothing, answers St. John Climacus, but ceaselessly praying, silently to cling to Thee. Some are enslaved by riches, others by honour, still others by acquiring possessions; my only desire is to cling to God.

Prayer, with all it contains of self-renunciation, has become your real life, which you keep up as though only for the sake of prayer. Walking with God (Genesis 6:9) is from now on the only thing that has real value for you, and it includes all heavenly and earthly events. For him who bears Christ within himself there is neither death nor illness or any earthly clamour; he has already stepped into eternal life, and that embraces everything.

Night and day the heavenly seed sprouts in your heart and grows, you know not how. The earth produces of itself, your heart's soil, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear (Mark 4:27-8).

The saints speak of something they call the inextinguishable light. It is a light not of the eye but of the heart that never ceases to walk in purity and clearness. It swiftly leaves the darkness behind, and constantly strives towards the day's height. Its constant quality is to be continually purified. This is the light of eternity that can never go out, and that shines through the veil of time and matter. But the saints never say that this light is given to them, but that it is given only to those who have purified their hearts in love for the Lord, on the narrow way which they have freely chosen.

The narrow way has no end: its quality is eternity. There every moment is a moment of beginning-the present includes the future: the day of judgment; the present includes the past: creation; for Christ is timelessly present everywhere, both in hell and in heaven. With the coming of the One, plurality disappears, even in time and space. Everything happens simultaneously, now and here and everywhere, in the depths of your heart. There you meet what you sought: the depth and height and breadth of the Cross: the Saviour and salvation.

Therefore, if you wish to save your soul and win eternal life, arise moment by moment from your dullness, bless yourself with the sign of the Cross and say: Let me, Lord, make a good beginning, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Chapter Twenty-Five: ON THE JESUS PRAYER

Chapter Twenty-Five: ON THE JESUS PRAYER

THE saintly Abbot Isaiah, the Egyptian hermit, says of the Jesus Prayer that it is a mirror for the mind and a lantern for the conscience. Someone has also likened it to a constantly sounding, quiet voice in a house: all thieves that sneak in take hasty flight when they hear that someone is awake there. The house is the heart, the thieves, the evil impulses. Prayer is the voice of the one who keeps watch. But the one who keeps watch is no longer 1, but Christ.

Spiritual activity embodies Christ in our soul. This involves continual remembrance of the Lord: you hide Him within, in your soul, your heart, your consciousness. I sleep, but my heart waketh (Song of Solomon 5:2): I myself sleep, withdraw, but the heart stays steadfast in prayer, that is, in eternal life, in the kingdom of Heaven, in Christ. The tree-roots of my being stand fast in their source.

The means of attaining this is the prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Repeat it aloud, or only in thought, slowly, lingeringly, but with attention, and from a heart freed as much as possible from all that is inappropriate to it. Not only worldly interests are inappropriate, but also such things as every kind of expectation or thought of answer, or inner visions, testings, all kinds of romantic dreams, curious questions and imaginings. Simplicity is as inescapable a condition as humility, abstemiousness of body and soul, and in general everything that pertains to the invisible warfare.

Especially should the beginner beware of everything that has the slightest tendency to mysticism. The Jesus Prayer is an activity, a practical work and a means by which you enable yourself to receive and use the power called God's grace-constantly present, however hidden, within the baptized person-in order that it may bear fruit. Prayer fructifies this power in our soul; it has no other purpose. It is a hammer that crushes a shell: a hammer is hard and its stroke hurts. Abandon every thought of pleasantness, rapture, heavenly voices: there is only one way to the kingdom of God, and that is the way of the Cross. And to hang crucified on a tree is horrible torment. Expect nothing else.

You have crucified your body by nailing it fast with a simple and uniform manner of life under strict self-discipline. Your thought-life and imagination ought to be as strictly controlled. Nail them fast with the words of prayer and Holy Scripture, with the reading of Psalms and the works of the holy Fathers, where these things are commanded. Do not permit your imagination to fly about at will. What men call "the flight of thought" is usually an aimless fluttering in the world of illusions. As soon as your thoughts are not occupied in your work's behalf, let them turn again to prayer.

See to it that both imagination and thought are as obedient to you as a well-trained dog. You do not allow it to run around and yap and rummage in garbage pails and bathe in the gutter. Likewise you ought always to be able to call back your thoughts and imagination, and you must do so untold times every passing minute. If you do not do so, you are like a horse driven now by one rider and now by another, says St. Anthony, until, worn out and lathered, it collapses.

If you hammer a nutshell too hard, you may crush the kernel as well. Lay on with caution. Do not pass over suddenly to the Jesus Prayer. Hold back to begin with, and even afterward, use your other prayer practices as well. Do not be overanxious. And do not suppose that you can pay proper attention to a single Lord, have mercy. Your prayer is bound to be divided and scattered: you are, indeed, human. Only in heaven the angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven (Matthew 18:10): you, on the contrary, have an earthly body with its own cravings. Do not shriek to high heaven in amazement if at the beginning you completely forget your prayer practice for many hours at a time, perhaps for a whole day or longer. Take it naturally and simply: you are an inexperienced sailor who has been so anxiously occupied with other things that he forgot to keep watch on the breezes. Thus, expect nothing of yourself. But do not demand anything of others, either.

Concentration is one thing, distraction another. Prayer will make your thought vital and clear: then it is right. The praying person sees everything around him, notices and observes everything, but the right doing of this comes through prayer, which sheds on all things its piercingly clear light.

The spirit works in the realm of purity within us. As long as we keep extending this realm of independence of heart, our spiritual humanity will continue to grow.

Prayer will call forth an inner calm, a peaceful relaxation in grief, love, gratitude, humility. If you are, on the contrary, tense and stirred up, in high spirits or in deep despair, if you feel contrition or bitterness or an exaggerated will to action, if you are thrown into ecstatic experiences or a drunkenness of the senses, such as you enjoy when listening to music, if you feel a supreme enjoyment or satisfaction so that you are "content with yourself and the whole world," you are on the wrong road. You have built altogether too much on yourself. Sound your retreat and go back to that self-reproach that must always be the starting-point for every true prayer.

The angel of light always brings peace, the peace that the demons of the dark wish at all costs to disturb. By this, say the holy Fathers, one can recognize the evil powers and separate them from the good.

*"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, A Sinner.



LIKE Zacchaeus you have now climbed up into a tree to see the Lord (Luke 19). You have done so not only by your power of thought or in a mystical, mental way. You are a human being and you have a body: therefore like Zacchaeus you have made use of your strength of limb and of earthly things to climb up from the ground. And if you have done so with understanding and quiet calculation, in consciousness of your own body's weight and limitations, but without fear or foolishness or side glances, you have also been fortunate enough to raise yourself so high that you can catch, over the milling mob of mankind, that is, your earthly impulses, a glimpse of Him you sought.

You observe that as you have begun to get a clearer sense of your own darkness, you are no longer drawn so strongly as before to entertainment and social life, and you have received, as it were, a little glimpse of your inner humanity as it really is. You think, perhaps, that up to now your heart has most resembled a nutshell of a boat rocking about without destination or helmsman; now the voyage has taken on goal and meaning, and happily so. None the less you are the same little nutshell of a boat on the wide sea; if you have voyaged aright you now see for the first time clearly how weak and small the boat is.

If only we show our good intention, the Lord is always Himself our Guide, says Archbishop Theophylact from Bulgaria. Jesus tells Zacchaeus: Make haste and come down; (that is, humble yourself), for today I must abide at thy house (Luke 19:5). House here can be understood as the heart. Truly, says the Lord, you have climbed up into a tree and conquered a part of your earthly desires because you wanted to see me, that is: you wanted to be able to perceive me when I passed that way in your heart. But make haste now to humble yourself lest you sit there thinking you are better than others, for it is in the heart of the humble that I must dwell. And he made haste and came down and received him joyfully (verse 6).

Zacchaeus, chief of the publicans, now received Christ, and the first thing he did was to give away all that he possessed. For half of his goods he gave straightway to the poor, and the remainder surely was quickly expended to repay fourfold those from whom he had demanded too much. He also is a son of Abraham (verse 9): he has heard the Lord's voice and has gone from his country and from his father's house (Genesis 12:1), where selfishness and passions ruled.

Zacchaeus knew that the heart which receives Christ must empty itself of everything else: it must offer all it has of illegitimately acquired riches: the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (I John 2:16). He understood that he who is rich here is poor there, for to be physically rich is the same as being spiritually poor, explains John Chrysostom: for if the rich man were not so poor, he would never be so rich.

As impossible as to unite health and sickness is to reconcile love and wealth, Isaac the Syrian points out, for he who loves his fellow men gives away unconditionally all that he possesses: such is the nature of love. But without love there is no possibility of entering the kingdom of God. This Zacchaeus observed also.

But the less you possess, the simpler is your mode of life. All excess has been thrown away, and the heart gathers itself together at its core. Little by little it tries to get into the kernel, where the stairs to heaven are to be found.

Then prayer, too, becomes simpler. Prayers gather around the centre and enter it. There in the depths is seen the only prayer that is needful: the prayer for mercy.

For what can a sinner, and the chief among them (I Timothy 1: 15) desire other than that the Lord might have mercy on him? Has he anything to give? Does he have strength of his own, a will of his own, any composure of his own? Can he undertake anything by himself? Does he know anything? Does he understand, does he perceive anything, that he, who owns nothing, can call his own?

He owns nothing: for sin is nothingness, that which does not exist. Sin is emptiness, darkness, denial. There the sinner rests, in that nothingness.

As such he sees himself, and the less he himself possesses, the richer he is: for the emptied room within him is filled not with perishable goods, but with the fullness of eternal life, its light and its affirmation-love and mercy. It is the Lord who dwells as guest in his house.

But how can he, this sinner, merit the Lord's arrival? How can he ever imagine that the Lord will look upon him in his darkness? However he tries to cleanse himself, however he struggles and works, however he follows the commandment of the Gospel and watches and fasts and in every way endeavours to deny himself for the Lord's sake, he sees himself even so fall back into ill humour and quarrelsomeness, lovelessness and laziness, impatience and ingratitude and all imaginable vices. How can he ever expect the Lord to come into such a room?

Therefore he prays: Lord, have mercy. Have mercy on me, a sinner. For truly I have tried to do what it was my duty to do to serve Thee: I have ploughed the field of my heart that Thou gavest me to tend, and I have fed the cattle there (Luke 17:7-10), but I am only Thy humble servant and without Thee I can do nothing. So have mercy on me and fill me with Thy grace.

Through work he increases his faith (Luke 17:5), through prayer he gets strength to work.

Thus work and prayer live closely together, until they flow together and become one. His work becomes to pray, and his prayer is his work. This is what the saints call spiritual activity, the prayer of the heart, or the Jesus Prayer.

Chapter Twenty-Three: ON TIMES OF DARKNESS

Chapter Twenty-Three: ON TIMES OF DARKNESS

THE weather shifts from cloudy to clear and then back to rain: thus it is with human nature. One must always expect clouds to hide the sun sometimes. Even the saints have had their dark hours, days and weeks. They say then that "God has left them" in order that they may know truly how utterly wretched they are of themselves, without His support. These times of darkness, when all seems meaningless, ridiculous and vain, when one is beset by doubt and temptations, are inevitable. But even these times can be harvested for good.

The dark days can best be conquered by following the example of St. Mary of Egypt. For forty-eight years she dwelt in the desert beyond Jordan, and when temptations befell her and memories of her former sinful life in Alexandria beckoned her to leave her voluntary sojourn in the desert, she lay on the ground, cried to God for help and did not get up until her heart was humbled. The first years were hard; she sometimes had to lie this way for many days; but after seventeen years came the time of rest.

On such days stay quiet. Do not be persuaded to go out into social life or entertainment. Do not pity yourself, seek comfort in nothing but your cry to the Lord: Haste thee, O God, to deliver me! Make haste to help me, O Lord (Psalm 70:1)! I am so fast in prison that I cannot get forth (Psalm 88:8), and other such appeals. You cannot expect real help from any other source. For the sake of chance relief do not throw away all your winnings. Pull the covers over your head: now your patience and steadfastness are being tried. If you endure the trial, thank God who gave you the strength. If you do not, rise up promptly, pray for mercy and think: I got what I deserved! For the fall itself was your punishment. You had relied too much on yourself, and now you see what it led to. You have had an experience; do not forget to give thanks.



WE are made up of soul and body; the two cannot be separated in our conduct. Let the physical therefore come to your aid: Christ knew our weakness and for our sake used words and gestures, spittle and earth as media. For our sake He let His power flow from the fringe of His garment (Matthew 9:20; 14:36), from the handkerchiefs or aprons that were carried away from the apostle Paul's body (Acts I9:I2), yes, from the shadow of the apostle Peter (Acts 5:I5).

Therefore use all that is of earth as a staff of remembrance on your troublesome wandering along the narrow way. May the whiteness of the snow and the blue of the heavens, the jewelled eye of the fly and the scorching of the flame, and all of creation that meets your senses, remind you of your Creator; but make use especially of what the Church offers you to help you yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness (Romans 6:19). First of all, the Lord's Holy Communion. But likewise the other mysteries, or sacraments, and the holy Scriptures. And the Church offers you also the holy icons of the Mother of God, the angels and the saints; and prayer before them, and candles and incense, holy water and the gleam of gold, and singing. Receive all this with gratitude and use it all for your upbuilding and encouragement, improvement and benefit as you travel further.

Give free outlet to your love for the generous Lord of love, kiss the Cross and the icons, adorn them with flowers; if only evil be crushed with silence, the good will be allowed to breathe freely. If what is given in love is received with love, the scope of love is increased and enlarged, and this is the aim of your work. The greater the river, the wider the delta.

Use your own body, too, as an aid in the struggle. Trim it down and make it independent of earthly whims. Let it share your trouble: you wish to learn humility, so let the body also be humble and bow to the ground. Fall on your knees with your face to the earth as often as you can in privacy, but get up at once, for after a fall follows restoration in Christ.

Make the sign of the Cross assiduously: it is a wordless prayer. In a brief moment, independent of sluggish words, it gives expression to your will to share Christ's life and crucify your flesh, and willingly, without grumbling, to receive all that the Holy Trinity sends. Moreover, the sign of the Cross is a weapon against evil spirits: use this weapon often and with reflection.

A house is never built until the scaffolding is raised. Only the strong man has no need of outward support. But are you strong? Are you not the weakest among the weak? Are you not a child?



IT is a known fact that a person who practices the piano too zealously gets cramp in his hands, and a too diligent writer exposes himself to writer's cramp. Dejected and downcast, the musician or author, just now so full of hope, must break off his work; in idleness he is exposed to many evil influences.

From this example you should take warning. Fasting, obedience, self-discipline, watchfulness, prayer all make up the constituent parts necessary for practice, and only practice. And any practice should be always undertaken genuinely, quietly taking into account one's own resources of strength (Luke 14:28-32), and without exaggeration at any point. Be ye therefore sober and watch unto prayer, advises the holy apostle Peter, and through him the Lord (I Peter 4:7).

Drunkenness does not always originate in alcohol and other means of inebriation. just as dangerous is the drunkenness that springs from all too great self-trust and the eagerness that ensues. With an abandoned zeal that expresses itself in exaggerations and extravagances, it sows its sacrifice on the soil of practice. The crop that shoots up out of this is unsound: it bears such fruit as overstrain, intolerance and self-righteousness. No, here it is a matter of not turning aside to the right hand or to the left (Deuteronomy 5:32) and never having the slightest confidence in one's own strength.

If we do not find within us rich fruits of love, peace, joy, moderation, humility, simplicity, uprightness, faith and patience, all our work is in vain, points out St. Macarius of Egypt. The work is carried on for the sake of the harvest, but the harvest is the Lord's.

Therefore, keep watch over yourself and be deliberate. If you notice that you are becoming irritable and intolerant, lighten your load a little. If you have the desire to look askance at others, to reproach or instruct or make remarks, you are on the wrong road: he who denies himself, has nothing with which to reproach others. If you think you are becoming "disturbed" by people or by external circumstances, you have not understood your work aright: everything that at first glance appears disturbing is really given as an opportunity for practice in tolerance, patience and obedience. The humble man cannot be disturbed, he can only disturb. Therefore keep yourself under, hide yourself. Go into your room and shut the door (Matthew 6:6), even when of necessity you find yourself in a large and noisy company. But if this sometimes becomes too hard to bear, go out anywhere where you can be alone, and cry out from your whole soul for help from the Lord, and He will hear you.

Think of yourself always as like a wheel, advises Ambrose: the more lightly the wheel touches the earth, the more easily it rolls forward. Do not think of or speak of or concern yourself with earthly matters more than is necessary. Remember, too, that a wheel that is completely in the air cannot roll.