Archive for category Patristic Pearls
Evagrius Ponticus (c. 346-399) – was originally from Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is modern-day Turkey. He served as a Lector under St. Basil the Great and was made Deacon and Archdeacon under St. Gregory of Nazianzus. He was also greatly influenced by Origen of Alexandria and St. Gregory of Nyssa. In about 383, Evagrius left Constantinople, eventually retreating to the Egyptian desert and joining a cenobitic community of Desert Fathers. As a classically trained scholar, Evagrius recorded the sayings of the desert monks and developed his own theological writings.
“If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.”
from “The 153 Chapters on Prayer”, Chap. 60.
Note: This chapter is one of the key passages for the full understanding of the Evagrian identification of contemplation with prayer. It is also important to understand what Evagrius meant by the term “theologian”. According to David W. Fagerberg, associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, to Evagrius, a “theologian is someone who has been shaped by the cooperative exercise of grace and ascetical submission, whose eyes can see after their light has been restored, whose heart wills only one thing, whose mind has changed, whose life has been reconnected to the source of life. This does not require a PhD, it requires a conversion of life.”
St. Saint Gregory of Sinai (1260s – November 27, 1346) – was a well traveled Orthodox monk and was a contemporary of St. Gregory Palamas. He was instrumental in the emergence of Athonite Hesychasm on Mt. Athos in the early 14th century. Note his requirement for theoria (illumination) as a prerequisite for any Christian ministry.
“According to St. Paul (cf. Rom. 15:16), you “minister” the Gospel only when, having yourself participated in the light of Christ, you can pass it on actively to others. Then you sow the Logos like a divine seed in the fields of your listeners’ souls. ‘Let your speech be always filled with grace’, says St Paul (Col. 4:6), ‘seasoned’ with divine goodness. Then it will impart grace to those who listen to you with faith. Elsewhere St. Paul, calling the teachers tillers and their pupils the field they till (cf. II Tim. 2:6), wisely presents the former as ploughers and sowers of the divine Logos and the latter as the fertile soil, yielding a rich crop of virtues. True ministry is not simply a celebration of sacred rites; it also involves participation in divine blessings and the communication of these blessings to others.”
Saint Gregory of Sinai
St. Cyril of Alexandria (376 – 444) – was Patriarch of Alexandria 412-444 and articulated the highest Christology of the undivided Church.
“Godhead and manhood are one thing and another, according to the mode [of being] existing in each, yet in Christ have they come together, in unwonted wise and passing understanding, unto union, without confusion and turning [τροπῆς] . But wholly incomprehensible is the mode of the Union.”
– From “On the Unity of Christ“
Cyril of Alexandria: “The Lord of the universe took the form of a servant and brought the good news to the poor”
St. Cyril of Alexandria (376 – 444) – was Patriarch of Alexandria 412-444 and articulated the highest Christology of the undivided Church.
Desiring to win over the whole world and bring its inhabitants to God the Father, raising all things to a higher condition and, in a sense, renewing the face of the earth, the Lord of the universe took the form of a servant and brought the good news to the poor. This, he said, was why he had been sent. Now by the poor we may understand those who were then deprived of all spiritual blessings and who lived in the world without hope and without God, as scripture says. He came to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of retribution. They are those among the Gentiles who, enriched by faith in Christ, have gained the divine, the heavenly treasure, which is the saving proclamation of the gospel. Through this they have become sharers in the kingdom of heaven and companions of the saints. They have inherited blessings impossible…
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Isaac of Nineveh – 7th century ascetic and mystic, born in modern-day Qatar, was made Bishop of Nineveh between 660-680. Here he speaks of the importance of silence in monastic life.
“Love silence above all things. It brings thee near the fruit which the tongue is too weak to interpret. At first we compel ourselves to be silent. Then from our silence something is born which draws us toward silence. May God grant thee to perceive that which is born of silence. If thou beginnest with this discipline, I do not know how much light will dawn in thee through it. Concerning what is said about the admirable Arsenius: that Fathers and brethren came to see him, but that he sat with them in silence and dismissed them in silence – do not think, my brother, that this happened by the action of his will alone, though in the beginning he had to compel himself. After some time some delight is born in the heart from the exercise of this service and by force it draws the body towards remaining in silence.”
“If thou placest all labors of this discipline [solitary life] on one side and silence on the other, silence will outweigh them.”
~St. Isaac of Nineveh, from Ascetical Treatises 65
St Seraphim of Sarov (1754 – 1833) – is one of the most renowned Orthodox Russian saints. He is generally considered the greatest of the 19th-century startsy (elders). Seraphim extended the monastic teachings of asceticism, contemplation, and theosis to lay Christians. He taught that the purpose of the Christian life was to acquire the Holy Spirit. Perhaps his most popular quotation amongst Orthodox believers is “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.”
Nikolay Motovilov was a disciple of St Seraphim and wrote down many of his conversations with the starets, including this famous Talk On the Purpose of the Christian Life, that took place in November 1831 in the forest near Sarov. Motovilov’s account is considered one of the spiritual treasures of Russian Orthodoxy.
The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God
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Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov), (1807–1867) – was a bishop and theologian of the Russian Orthodox Church. His two most important books translated into English are: The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism; and On the Prayer of Jesus.
“The correct practice of the Jesus Prayer proceeds naturally from correct notions about God, about the most holy name of the Lord Jesus, and about man’s relationship to God.
Approach Prayer with Humility
God is an infinitely great and all-perfect being. God is the Creator and Renewer of men, Sovereign Master over men, angels, demons and all created things, both visible and invisible. Such a notion of God teaches us that we ought to stand prayerfully before Him in deepest reverence and in great fear and dread, directing toward Him all our attention, concentrating in our attention all the powers of the reason, heart, and soul, and rejecting distractions and vain imaginings, whereby we diminish alertness and reverence, and violate the correct manner of standing before God, as required by His majesty (John 4:23-24; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27). St. Isaac the Syrian put it marvelously: “When you turn to God in prayer, be in your thoughts as an ant, as a serpent of the earth, like a worm, like a stuttering child. Do not speak to Him something philosophical or high-sounding, but approach Him with a child’s attitude” (Homily 49). Those who have acquired genuine prayer experience an ineffable poverty of the spirit when they stand before the Lord, glorify and praise Him, confess to him, or present to Him their entreaties. They feel as if they had turned to nothing, as if they did not exist. That is natural. For when he who is in prayer experiences the fullness of the divine presence, of Life Itself, of Life abundant and unfathomable, then his own life strikes him as a tiny drop in comparison to the boundless ocean. That is what the righteous and long-suffering Job felt as he attained the height of spiritual perfection. He felt himself to be dust and ashes; he felt that he was melting and vanishing as does snow when struck by the sun’s burning rays (Job 42:6).
The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine name. The power and effect of that name are divine, omnipotent and salvific, and transcend our ability to comprehend it. With faith therefore, with confidence and sincerity, and with great piety and fear ought we to proceed to the doing of the great work which God has entrusted to us: to train ourselves in prayer by using the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “The incessant invocation of God’s name,” says Barsanuphius the Great, “is a medicine which mortifies not just the passions, but even their influence. Just as the physician puts medications or dressings on a wound that it might be healed, without the patient even knowing the manner of their operation, so also the name of God, when we invoke it, mortifies all passions, though we do not know how that happens” (421st Answer).
Our ordinary condition, the condition of all mankind, is one of fallenness, of spiritual deception, of perdition. Apprehending—and to the degree that we apprehend, experiencing—that condition, let us cry out from it in prayer, let us cry in spiritual humility, let us cry with wails and sighs, let us cry for clemency! Let us turn away from all spiritual gratifications, let us renounce all lofty states of prayer of which we are unworthy and incapable! It is impossible “to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” (Ps. 136:5), in a heart held captive by passions. Should we hear an invitation to sing, we can know surely that it emanates “from them that have taken us captive” (Ps. 136:3). “By the waters of Babylon” tears alone are possible and necessary (Ps. 136:1).
Rule for Practicing the Jesus Prayer
This is the general rule for practicing the Jesus Prayer, derived from the Sacred Scriptures and the works of the Holy Fathers, and from certain conversations with genuine men of prayer. Of the particular rules, especially for novices, I deem the following worthy of mention.
St. John of the Ladder counsels that the mind should be locked into the words of the prayer and should be forced back each time it departs from it (Step XXVIII, ch. 17). Such a mechanism of prayer is remarkably helpful and suitable. When the mind, in its own manner, acquires attentiveness, then the heart will join it with its own offering— compunction. The heart will empathize with the mind by means of compunction, and the prayer will be said by the mind and heart together.
Do Not Hurry
The words of the prayer ought to be said without the feast hurry. even lingering, so that the mind can lock itself into each word.
Persevere bring attention Back to the Words when the Mind wanders
St. John of the Ladder consoles and instructs the coenobitic… “God does not expect a pure and undistracted prayer. Despair not should inattention come over you! Be of cheerful spirit and constantly compel your mind to return to itself! For the angels alone are not subject to any distraction” (Step IV, ch. 93). “Being enslaved by passions, let us persevere in praying to the Lord: for all those who have reached the state of passionlessness did so with the help of such indomitable prayer. If, therefore, you tirelessly train your mind never to stray from the words of the prayer, it will be there even at mealtime. A great champion of perfect prayer has said: ‘I had rather speak five words with my understanding … than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue’ (I Cor. 14:19). Such prayer,” that is, the grace-given prayer of the mind in the heart, which shuns imaginings, “is not characteristic of children; wherefore we who are like children, being concerned with the perfection of our prayer,” that is, the attentiveness which is acquired by locking the mind into the words of the prayer, “must pray a great deal. Quantity is the cause of quality. The Lord gives pure prayer to him who, eschewing laziness, prays much and regularly in his own manner, even if it is marred by inattention” (The Ladder, Step XXVI11, ch. 21).
It Takes Time
Novices need more time in order to train themselves in prayer… Asceticism needs both time and gradual progress, so that the ascetic can mature for prayer in every respect. In order that a flower might bloom or the fruit grow on a tree, the tree must first be planted and left to develop; thus also does prayer grow out of the soil of other virtues and nowhere else… Pulled hither and thither by its acquired predilections, impressions, memories and worries, the novice’s mind constantly breaks its salvific chains and strays from the narrow to the wide path. It prefers to wander freely, to stroll in the regions of falsehood in association with the fallen spirits, to stray aimlessly and mindlessly over great expanses, though this be damaging to him and cause him great loss. The passions, those moral infirmities of human nature, are the principal cause of inattentiveness and absentmindedness in prayer. The more they are weakened in a man, the less is he distracted in spirit when praying. The passions are brought under control and mortified little by little by means of obedience, as well as by self-reproach and humility—these are the virtues upon which successful prayer is built. Concentration, which is accessible to man, is granted by God in good time to every struggler in piety and asceticism who by persistence and ardor proves the sincerity of his desire to acquire prayer.
Begin by saying the Prayer Aloud
The Russian hieromonk Dorotheus, a great instructor in spiritual asceticism, who was in this respect very much like St. Isaac the Syrian, counsels those who are learning the Jesus Prayer to recite it aloud at first. The vocal prayer, he says, will of itself turn into the mental.
After much vocal prayer there comes Mental Prayer
“Mental prayer,” he continues, “is the result of much vocal prayer, and mental prayer leads to the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer should not be said in a loud voice but quietly, just audibly enough that you can hear yourself.,’ It is particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when assailed by distraction, grief, spiritual despondency and laziness. The vocal Jesus Prayer gradually awakens the soul from the deep moral slumber into which grief and spiritual despair are wont to thrust it. It is also particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when attacked by images, appetites of the flesh, and anger; when their influence causes the blood to boil. It should be practiced when peace and tranquility vanish from the heart, and the mind hesitates, becomes weak, and—so to speak—goes into upheaval because of the multitude of unnecessary thoughts and images. The malicious princes of the air, whose presence is hidden to physical sight but who are felt by the soul through their influences upon it, hearing as they mount their attack the name of the Lord Jesus—which they dread—will become undecided and confused, and will take fright and withdraw immediately from the soul. The method of prayer which the hieromonk suggests is very simple and easy. It should be combined with the method of St. John of the Ladder: the Jesus Prayer should be recited loud enough that you can hear yourself, without any hurry, and by locking the mind into the words of the prayer. This last, the hieromonk enjoins upon all who pray by Jesus’ name….
Establish a Daily Rule for Prostrations
The novice who is studying the Jesus Prayer will advance greatly by observing a daily rule comprising a certain number of full prostrations and bows from the waist, depending upon the strength of each individual. These are all to be performed without any hurry, with a repentant feeling in the soul and with the Jesus Prayer on the lips during each prostration…. Twelve prostrations suffice in the beginning. Depending upon one’s strength, ability and circumstances, that number can be constantly increased. But when the number of prostrations increases, one should be careful to preserve the quality of one’s prayer, so that one not be carried away by a preoccupation with the physical into fruitless, and even harmful, quantity. The bows warm up the body and somewhat exhaust it, and this condition facilitates attention and compunction. But let us be watchful, very watchful, lest the state pass into a bodily preoccupation which is foreign to spiritual sentiments and recalls our fallen nature! Quantity, useful as it is when accompanied by the proper frame of mind and the proper objective, can be just as harmful when it leads to a preoccupation with the physical. The latter is recognized by its fruits which also distinguish it from spiritual ardor. The fruits of physical preoccupation are conceit, self-assurance, intellectual arrogance: in a word, pride in its various forms, all of which are easy prey to spiritual deception. The fruits of spiritual ardor are repentance, humility, weeping and tears. The rule of prostrations is best observed before going to sleep: then, after the cares of the day have passed, it can be practiced longer and with greater concentration…. Prostrations stimulate a prayerful state of the mind and mortify the body as well as support and strengthen fervor in prayer.
These suggestions are, I believe, sufficient for the beginner who is eager to acquire the Jesus Prayer. “Prayer,” said the divine St. Meletius the Confessor, “needs no teacher. It requires diligence, effort and personal ardor, and then God will be its teacher.” The Holy Fathers, who have written many works on prayer in order to impart correct notions and faithful guidance to those desiring to practice it, propose and decree that one must engage in it actively in order to gain experiential knowledge, without which verbal instruction, though derived from experience, is dead, opaque, incomprehensible and totally inadequate. Conversely, he who is carefully practicing prayer and who is already advanced in it, should refer often to the writings of the Holy Fathers about prayer in order to check and properly direct himself, remembering that even the great Paul, though possessing the highest of all testimonies for his Gospel—that of the Holy Spirit— nevertheless went to Jerusalem where he communicated to the apostles who had gathered there the Gospel that he preached to the gentiles, “lest by any means,” as he said, “I should run, or had run, in vain ” (Gal. 2:2).”
Translated by Stephen Karganovic from The Alphabet of Orthodox Life, Belgrade, 1974. This appeared in Orthodox Life, vol. 28, no. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1978, pp. 9-14. Reprinted with permission.