In the Lives of the Fathers you can find a guide given by an elder to his disciple that follows: when a strong and cruel enemy is going to attack, one monk gets armored, takes up arms and confronts the enemy. This is a stupid monk. A wise monk will climb up a tree.
The first one is stupid as he has overestimated his strength. Poor him, he doesn’t understand, he fails to realize that this is an uneven contest. So uneven that he would neither just stand up to, nor even stop the enemy for a moment. No one needs his seemingly brave death, except for his vanity. Those who think they can win using only their own strength, art and courage are already beaten by the spirit of pride and self opinion which prevents them from thinking soberly and without emotions.
A wise monk climbs up a tree, that means, firstly, he runs, secondly, not anywhere, but to the place where he is going to be rescued. He climbs the tree, up there, where his Christ is. The tree is an allegory, it means upwards.
A wise monk is naturally modest while estimating his capabilities and experience. Experience that has been gained from confession to confession, from fall to rise and from fall again. An inner weeping gave rise in him. A grief, and not even for being a great sinner, but more for having no self-control. As he grieves for his sins, but he can’t help committing them. He weeps, rises and falls again. He comes close to despair and there at the edge of doom, at the edge of the hell, he starts to yell, to cry: “O Lord! I can’t, I can’t do anything, I’m broken, I’m desperate. I’m eager to do something, but I can’t do anything. Only You can help me, and I’m nothing without You, just a zero! Lord, have mercy, I’m dying!”
And finally he comes to be a wise monk. Those who climb up a tree, in other words, run to Christ, have an experienced and endured wisdom which is their spiritual immunity that will work not only for their mind, but also for their intuition.
It is not by chance that I start with this example. In the course of our conversation we shall come back to this issue, because it’s a crucial one for us. We don’t fight against sin, but we avoid it.
It may work some other way for the perfect, but for us who are new in the faith, weak and stupid, it is all like that, and I make a point of it. We run, but not just run, we hurry to our Christ, Christ the Savior.
The beginning of a sin is in our mind. It comes to our thoughts in our sleep or from the depth of our sinful memory. It stays in our mind and keeps disturbing our heart looking for sympathy. A stupid monk takes up arms and fights against thoughts, while a wise one runs, he is afraid of slowing down. He knows well that after the Fall of our first parents Adam and Eve, humankind inherited a broken, split inner world. One’s mind, heart and will that used to work together had got scattered around. A man of faith with his mind realizes that the sin is bad, but in his heart he sympathizes with the sin against his mind. The heart is trying to fight, but there is no will, and that’s it. A wise monk understands it all and accepts it for granted as the result of the Fall, of corruption. That is why he’s afraid of slowing down, he runs at once, runs in his mind from those thoughts and feelings. He tries to avert his mind. And go straight to Christ. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner” – right here.
On the contrary, moving from an evil thought to a neutral or even a good one, from thought to thought, from impression to impression, our mind will come back to sin again.
Our sinful mind is like a dog let loose, wandering anywhere. It can find some healthy food, but also can wander into a dump, which is more probable.
In this respect I’d like to point out that our trouble is not just evil thoughts, but our mind let loose, wandering anywhere: in idle, even good, dreams, illusions, seemingly neutral thoughts. The problem is not that you think of something sinful and dream about something good, the trouble is that your mind is loose, it wanders and sometimes will surely find its way to the “dump”. A wise parent will try to engage his child in some activity (I’m not talking about work, but some activity), so that less time is wasted in idleness. So that he or she had less time for playing tricks. The same thing with our mind: leaving it idle we let it wander in dreams, in idle thoughts, and it can find its way…
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Mt. 5:8)
Many people feel sure that a pure heart is a heart free of evil thoughts, but both heart and mind could be littered by good thoughts, just like a mess of good things. And so, the heart is pure when it is simple, not complicated, not hoarded by any stuff. A pure heart is free both from a sin and from a pile of complicated idle thoughts and feelings. Why shall the pure in heart see God? Because there are fewer obstacles between them and God, they look straight at Him. Their mind is not distracted by anything foreign or parallel. They look straight at God and only at Him.
We can’t think only about God, we need to pay attention to our earthly concerns. Surely, we can’t, but to be honest, like during a confession, we have many minutes, even hours, during the day and night, when we can say: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”.
If we find some time for this exercise, our mind will get used to running away from evil thoughts and feelings. It will run to Christ and stand by Him inconspicuously, without visualization. It is very important. We should stand without visualizing Christ, without the illusion of the presence of God, but before God. The difference is that the God we try to fancy, imagine, invent is our imaginary god, while the real God opens up Himself, not otherwise when a man discovers Him on his own. That is why when praying we should stop our creativity, stop fancying and imagining and let God speak for Himself. For this reason, inconspicuously, without visualization, we keep our mind cold and simple, all simple, in order not to push into the background the image of God who always looks at us. The thing is that there is often our creativity which stands between Him and us. It fancies, creates, worries, i n t e r f e r e s.
I’d like to say a few words about discernment.
People talk a lot about it at present, but these talks are a little bit vague and indefinite. More often, I see that it is understood as the act of intellect. I believe that discernment, as a gift of God, is a charismatic state. Spiritual discernment is when you know the answer, neither the way it is, nor your own answer, but when you speak for the Holy Spirit.
Look, where he’s driving at…
That’s true, as the gift of discernment has always been considered to be the highest gift in the Church. Please note, I tell you again that this gift is not granted to academicians or professors, but to people of proper spiritual life. Careful, prayerful and concentrated life. They own this gift to the full extent. We become acquainted with this gift of the Holy Spirit, but to a lesser degree.
Our discernment should tell us that we are still not perfect and our life is full of mistakes. Therefore, we should be careful with our reasoning, more often ask for advice and don’t make hasty decisions. This would be a kind of discernment, not bad for us.
As a matter of fact, we usually know which option to choose, but our fanciful mind makes the issue more complicated by excessive reasoning, it confuses, distracts us, makes us panic. We had better pray. We had better pray properly, and during the prayer think about Christ, not about the problem. The purpose of prayer is not to explain to God what’s happened and why it’s happened. Could it be that God doesn’t know? The purpose of prayer is Christ Himself, which means that we should mentally find Christ and stand before Him. When you stand before Him there is no reason talking or explaining anything. You realize that He understands it all, knows it all, and thus simply say to Him: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”. And it should be said in a simple, easy way. Otherwise complexity will lead you away from God.
I’d also like to talk about obedience. Oh, what a miracle, what a mystery it is! And I’d like to give it further understanding than just getting the job done. It doesn’t matter if you did it or not, but the way you did it, the way you describe it in your mind matters.
Two novices are carrying a log. One of them thinks a good thought: of course, no one needs the log to be there, but I carry it, because it’s my obedience, as the abbot told us, I must obey, and otherwise, it’s a sin. Another novice is carrying the log without permitting himself to say anything, except for: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”. And so, the first one, even though he has a good thought, is in a tricky position, as his mind and heart do not always work together. His mind says: you have to obey, but the heart has a touch of distaste to the abbot, and he can’t help it, the heart wants what it wants.
The novice with his good thought brought distaste about his abbot due to his inexperience. An experienced one did not allow himself to think about the abbot at all, neither in a good or in an evil way. He kept his mind bound, bound to Christ. And the place where Christ dwells is pure.
Many Holy Fathers set obedience before fast and prayer. And it is really so, as a prayer will not work without obedience. A true, spiritual and deep obedience makes one’s mind simple, consistent and non-disputing. Such a mind can stand pure before God. In other words, a mind free from thoughts can stand face to face with God. People of the Western Church pay more attention to humanism and thus they are supposed to come to God. In the East people seek God and through God they have love for everyone.
When we hold back our emotions, good impulses, impressions it seems to be dryness, indifference… In fact we hold back what belongs to us, something touched by a sin, in order to get from God what is God’s. A pure and perfect sense of love and compassion for every living thing.
And it won’t be an illusion of goodness and love, it will be love itself.
Why am I speaking of illusions? Check yourselves and say whether your feelings, or relations are perfect. Tonight we say “I love you”, and tomorrow we’ll betray and get angry. That’s just the way it is. We are not perfect ourselves, but we can become perfect through God.
Due to that we don’t seek goodness, we seek God. And through God we get better, purer.
And it works for everything – first of all, we seek God, then – all the rest.
Many people say that by keeping the commandments they come closer to God. And I can’t keep the commandments on my own. I want it badly, I cry, but I fail. I believe everyone fails, because if there were only the commandments to consider, Christ would have left only the commandments. But He left us Himself and said: For without Me you can do nothing (John 15:5). That is the reason why we don’t attempt to act only visibly, but realize that our act of faith should be based on a proper tacit spiritual life.
Proper spiritual life brings one’s mind to Christ. And through Christ our visible feat takes a wise and sensible direction. Our visible feat will never be complete without spiritual life.
Spiritual life is not about inward struggle, it is about avoiding struggle. And running to Christ. In this case a struggle should be understood as a struggle with evil thoughts. We don’t need it. We should only struggle to keep our mind on Christ. Do not pay your attention to anything sinful. Even though you contradict a sin, you waste your time on it, wasting your spiritual strength. Just leave it to Christ. Even a struggle, an argument against a sin will all the same get your soul dirty and leave a memory of the sin, and one day your heart will respond with sympathy to it.
Let only Christ be in your heart.
You will admit that without thinking about our sins we may stop perceiving our imperfection, our corruption. But if, living a spiritual life, you keep approaching Christ, you will start to see clearly through Christ, hear through Christ and comprehend through the Holy Spirit. And this comprehension will allow you to have a clear-eyed view of yourself and of Christ. You will recognize yourself as a poor sinner, infinitely small in comparison to the great perfection of Christ, who shortens the distance coming to meet us.
A pure heart is keenly aware of a sin. That is the reason why the saints, getting more pure, kept crying more over themselves.
You may examine your sins, meddle with them and, thus, acquire humility. But also you can seek Christ who is the light, the purity, the spiritual vision and you will have a clear, keen and simple vision. That is to say, first of all, Christ, and then, repentance through Christ.
Not the kind of repentance you squeezed out of yourself or made up for yourself, but the one born from the Holy Spirit. And it will work for anything: first comes Christ, then (an unfeigned) repentance. First, Christ, then love (whereas Christ is love Himself).
Why did our Lord leave us the sacrament of confession? So that we, after having sincerely confessed our sins and having heard from Christ “I forgive and remit your sins”, could stop keeping the memory of a sin which is the dirt that stains our heart dwelling there even in contradiction with us. Pin up to your heart the memory of being a great sinner, but do not take the details of your sins for a treasure.
Keep your mind in a clean place. Let your heart experience only something good and pure.
Do not let in anything bad, do not pay attention to it or waste your feelings on it. Let only Christ be there, inside your soul.
Do not try to change the world by worrying about it. You will lose yourself and won’t save the world. You may present the world with something real instead of good but idle feelings. Give it sainthood, if this is too much, let it be your aspiration for it, sincere, not a false one. But in no case, your own sainthood, for it’s not true. Sainthood is the reflection of the light of Jesus Christ through yourself.
In order to reflect you need to be in His glory.
Always be with Christ. Your thoughts, feelings, emotions, concerns should not come from you, but they should come from Christ.
Christ is a Bridegroom and you are only His best man. It’s a position of trust and highest importance.
Why do we dare to practice the Jesus prayer? Why do we talk about spiritual life? Do we recognize ourselves as saints or at least righteous ones?
No, we pronounce the Jesus prayer specifically because we are sinners. Great sinners. We are dying and searching for a remedy of salvation, and can’t find some other one.
We need to do something, otherwise, it’s going to be hell.
And owing to our false humility, which is close to self-indulgence, it would have been very stupid to give up the remedy which Christ gives us through the Holy Fathers.
Arcpriest Sergiy BARANOV.