We Should Approach a Person As a Mystery

by +Anthony, Metropolitan of Sourozh

We heard today the story of the man born blind. We do not know from experience what physical blindness is, but we can imagine how this man was walled in himself, how all the world around him existed only as a distant sound, something he could not picture, imagine. He was a prisoner within his own body. He could live by imaginations, he could invent a world around himself, he could by touch and by hearing approximate what really was around him; but the total, full reality could only escape him.

We are not physically blind, but how many of us are locked in themselves! Who of us can say that he is so open that he can perceive all the world in its width, but also in its depth? We meet people, and we see them with our eyes; but seldom it happens that beyond the outer shape, features, clothes, – how often does it happen that we see something of the depth of the person? How seldom it is that we look into a person’s eyes and go deep in understanding! We are surrounded by people and every person is unique to God, but are people unique to us? Are not people that surround us just ‘people’, who have names, surnames, nicknames, whom we can recognise by their outer looks but whom we do not know at any depth?

This is our condition: we are blind, we are deaf, we are insensitive to the outer world, and yet, we are called to read meanings. When we meet a person, we should approach this person as a mystery, that is as something which we can discover only by a deep communion, by entering into a relationship, perhaps silent, perhaps in words, but so deep that we can know one another not quite as God knows us, but in the light of God that enlightens all and each of us.

And more than this: we can do, each within his own power, within his own gifts, what Christ did: He opened the eyes of this man. What did this man see? The first thing he saw was the face of the Incarnate Son of God, in other words, he saw love incarnate. When his eyes met the eyes of Christ, he met God’s compassion, God’s tenderness, God’s earnest concern and understanding. In the same way could so many people begin to see, if by meeting us they meet people in whose eyes, on whose face they could see the shining of earnest, sober love, of a love that is not sentimental but is seeing, a love that can see and understand. And then, how much could we be to people around us a revelation of all the meanings that this world holds and contains through art, through beauty, through science, through all the means by which beauty is perceived and proclaimed among human beings.

But are we doing this? Is our concern to convey the width, and the depth, the beauty and the meaning of things to every person whom we meet? Are we not rather concerned with receiving than with giving? And yet, Saint Paul who knew what it meant to receive and to give, said, ‘It is a more blessed thing to give than to receive’. And yet how much had he received! He had received the knowledge of God in his own experience; he had received teaching, and knowledge, and experience within the Old Testament, and then Christ revealed Himself to him: what did he not receive! And yet, he exulted more in giving than in receiving, because he did not want to be the owner of all the richness that had come his way; he wanted to share it, to give it, to set aglow and afire other lives than his own.

Let us reflect on how rich, how richly endowed we are, how much it was given us to see, and to hear. And let us realise at the same time how tragically walled we are within ourselves unless we break this wall in order to give, as generously, as richly, as abundantly as we were given. And then indeed, our joy will be fulfilled according to Christ’s promise. And no one, nothing will ever be able to take it away from us. Amen!

Without Faith Children become Strangers

Sermon. 131.19:41-44.

by St Leo Pope of Old Rome

THE blessed prophet Jeremiah loudly condemned the ignorance, at once, and pride of the Jews, rebuking them in these words; “How say you that we are wise, and the word of the Lord is with us? In vain is the lying cord of the scribes. The wise men are ashamed: they trembled, and were taken: what wisdom have they, in that they have rejected the Word of the Lord!” For being neither wise, nor acquainted with the sacred Scriptures, though the scribes and Pharisees falsely assumed to themselves the reputation of being learned in the law, they rejected the Word of God. For when the Only Begotten had become man, they did not receive Him, nor yield their neck obediently to the summons which He addressed to them by the Gospel. Because therefore by their wicked conduct they rejected the Word of God, they were themselves rejected, being condemned by God’s just decree. For He said, by the voice of Jeremiah, “Call them rejected silver: because the Lord has rejected them.” And again, “Shave your head, and cast it away, and take lamentation upon your lips, because the Lord has rejected and thrust away the generation that has done these things.” And what these things are, the God of all has Himself declared to us, saying, “Hear, O earth: behold! I am bringing upon this people evils; the fruit of their turning away; because they regarded not My word, and have rejected My law.” For neither did they keep the commandment that was given to them by Moses, “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men:” and further, they also rejected the Word of God the Father, having refused to honour by faith Christ, when He called them thereunto. The fruits therefore of their turning away were plainly the calamities which happened to them: for they suffered all misery, as the retribution due for murdering the Lord.

But their falling into this affliction was not in accordance with the good will of God. For He would rather have had them attain to happiness by faith and obedience. But they were disobedient, and arrogant: yet even so, though this was their state of mind, Christ pitied them: for “He wills that all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.” For it even says, that “when He saw the city, He wept;” that we hereby might learn that He feels grief, if we may so speak of God, Who transcends all. But we could not have known that He pitied them, wicked as they were, had He not made manifest by some human action that sorrow which we could not see. For the tear which drops from the eye is a symbol of grief, or rather, a plain demonstration of it. So He wept also over Lazarus, that we again might understand that it grieved Him that the nature of man had fallen under the power of death. For “He created all things to incorruption; but by the envy of the devil death entered into the world:” not indeed because the envy of the devil is more powerful than the will of the Creator, but because it was necessary that there should follow, upon the transgression of the divine commandment, a penalty that would humble to corruption whosoever had despised the law of life.

We say therefore that He wept also over Jerusalem for a similar reason: for He desired, as I said, to see it in happiness, by its accepting faith in Him, and welcoming peace with God. For it was to this that the prophet Isaiah also invited them, saying, “Let us make peace with Him: let us who come make peace.” For that by faith peace is made by us with God, the wise Paul teaches us, where he writes, “Being justified therefore by faith, we have peace with God by our Lord Jesus Christ.” But they, as I said, having hurried with unbridled violence into arrogancy and contumely, persisted in despising the salvation which is by Christ: and Christ therefore blames them for this very thing, saying, “Would that you had known, even you, the things of your peace:” the things, that is, useful and necessary for you to make your peace with God. And these were faith, obedience, the abandon- ment of types, the discontinuance of the legal service, and the choice in preference of that which is in spirit and in truth, even that which is by Christ, of a sweet savour, and admirable, and precious before God. “For God, He says, is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

But they are hidden, He says, from your eyes.” For they were not worthy to know, or rather to understand, the Scriptures inspired of God, and which speak of the mystery of Christ. For Paul said, “Seeing then that we have so great a hope, we use great freedom of speech: and not as Moses, who put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel might not behold the glory of his countenance, which was fading away. But their minds were blinded; for even to this day the same veil remains upon the reading of the old covenant: for when Moses is read, the veil is laid upon their hearts, and is not taken off, because it is done away in Christ.” But in what way is the veil done away in Christ? It is because He, as being the reality, makes the shadow cease: for that it is His mystery which is represented by the shadow of the law, He assures us, saying to the Jews, “Had you believed Moses, you would have believed also Me: for he wrote of Me.” For it was because they had not carefully examined the types of the law, that they did not see the truth. “For callousness in part has happened to Israel,” as Paul, who was really learned in the law, tells us. But callousness is the certain cause of ignorance and darkness: for so Christ once spoke; “It is not any thing that goes into the mouth which defiles the man.” And even then the Pharisees again reproached Him, for so speaking, with the breaking of the law, and overthrowing of the commandment given them by Moses. And afterwards the disciples drew near to Him, saying, “Do you know that the Pharisees, who heard the word, were offended? And He answered them, Every plant that My heavenly Father has not planted shall be rooted up: let them alone: blind are they, leaders of the blind.” The plant therefore which the Father planted not,—-for He calls to the acknowledgment of the Son those who shall be accounted worthy of His salvation, —-shall be rooted up.

Far different is the case with those who have believed in Him: how could it be otherwise? For, as the Psalmist says concerning them, “They are planted in the house of the Lord, and shall flourish in the courts of our God.” For they are the building and workmanship of God, as the sacred Scripture declares. For it is said to God by the voice of David, “Your sons shall be as the young olive plants round about your table.”

But the Israelites, even before the Incarnation, proved themselves unworthy of the salvation which is by Christ, in that they rejected communion with God, and set up for themselves gods falsely so called, and slew the prophets, although they warned them not to depart from the living God, but to hold fast to His sacred commandments. But they would not consent so to do, but grieved Him in many ways, even when He invited them to salvation.

And this the Saviour Himself teaches us, thus saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets, and stones them that are sent to her, how often would I have gathered your sons, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not.” You see that He indeed often desired to bestow upon them His mercy, but they rejected His aid. And therefore they were condemned by God’s holy decree, and put away from being members of His spiritual household. For He even said by one of the holy prophets to the people of the Jews, “I have compared your mother to the night: My people is like to him that has no knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest: and because you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your sons.” Observe therefore that He compares Jerusalem to the night; for the darkness of ignorance veiled the heart of the Jews, and blinded their eyes: and for this reason they were given over to destruction and slaughter. For the God of all spoke by the voice of Ezechiel: “As I live, says the Lord, surely inasmuch as you have defiled My holy things with all your impurities, I will also reject you; My eye shall not spare, nor will I pity.” “They that are in the plain shall die by the sword: and them that are in the city famine and pestilence shall consume. And those of them that are saved shall be delivered, and shall be upon the mountains as meditative doves.” For Israel did not perish from the very roots, nor, so to speak, stock and branch: but a remnant was delivered, of which the foremost and the first-fruits were the blessed disciples, of whom it is that he says, that they were upon the mountains as meditative doves. For they were as heralds throughout the whole world, forth-telling the mystery of Christ, and their office is praise and song, and, so to speak, to cry aloud in psalms, “My tongue shall meditate on Your righteousness: and all the day on Your praise.”

The means therefore of her peace with God were hidden from Jerusalem: and of these the first and foremost is the faith which justifies the wicked, and unites by holiness and righteousness those who possess it to the all pure God.

That the city then, once so holy and illustrious, even Jerusalem, fell into the distresses of war, may be seen from history: but the prophet Isaiah also assures us of it, where he cries aloud to the multitudes of the Jews, “Your country is desolate: your cities are burnt with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence: and it is desolate as overthrown by foreign nations.” This was the wages of the vainglory of the Jews, the punishment of their disobedience, the torment that was the just penalty of their pride.

But we have won the hope of the saints, and are in all happiness, because we have honoured Christ by faith: by Whom and with Whom, to God the Father, be praise and dominion, with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.

On Lazarus

The Lazarus of the Parable, and the Lazarus who was Four Days in the Tomb.

by Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky)

Have you ever noticed, dear reader, that in all of Christ’s parables there occurs but one proper name? If you have noticed, have you ever attempted to ascertain why the Lord calls only this Lazarus by name, while even his rival during his earthly sojourn remains under the general title of the Rich Man? Evidently, the Divine Teacher wished His followers to keep firmly in mind both the earthly and the eternal lot of poor Lazarus, although the main idea of the parable is concentrated nonetheless in the person of the Rich Man: Lazarus remains silent in the parable, while the Rich Man speaks and prays for himself and his brethren. The Savior’s wish did not go unfulfilled: Lazarus has become a favorite theme in the songs of good Christians! The poor are comforted by such hymns amid their misfortunes, the hearts of the rich are turned from greed thereby, and all are taught to be mindful of death, the judgment of God, and generosity towards the poor. Yet, our problem remains unresolved. The parable of the Prodigal Son is also a favorite topic, if not for folk songs, at least for ecclesiastical hymns, and there are others as well in which mercy and repentance are extolled; but there are no proper names therein. Furthermore, in songs about Lazarus the singers do not draw inspiration from his name, but from the depictions of heaven and hades, the hardheartedness of the Rich Man on earth, and his belated repentance in hades.

Perhaps we would sooner find what we seek, were we to attempt to elucidate the individual ideas expressed in the Lord’s parable. Is everything in it clear? Is our heart reconciled to Abraham’s hope-shattering reply to the Rich Man who was bemoaning his brethren: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead”?

These stern words, by the very force of their implications, probably troubled many of the Lord’s followers, and to this day continue to trouble many who read the Gospel, for they seem to be an exaggeration until they are confirmed by actual events. And in fact, they were confirmed. Not Lazarus the pauper of the parable, but another Lazarus, the friend of Christ, known to all the Jews, plainly, rose from the dead, before the eyes of a large crowd of people, having spent four days as an unbreathing, malodorous corpse. “Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on Him.” Many, but not all. “But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done” (Jn. 11:45, 46). They assembled, and not only were not mollified in their stubborn unbelief, or, more accurately, their disobedience to the truth, but, in accordance with the voiced intent of Caiaphas, determined to kill the Slayer of Death; yet even this did not seem enough for them. “The chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus” (12:10, 11). Note that in their decision there is neither a denial of the miracle, nor an indication of any guilt on the part of either of those they had condemned: an unjust execution, decided beforehand, was their sole means of keeping the people in unbelief, and they determined to utilize such means.

The words which the Lord put on the lips of Abraham concerning the extent of man’s hardheartedness were thus proved true in all their terrible accuracy: whoever does not want to listen to Moses and the prophets will not believe one who has risen from the dead. The Apostle John does not cite the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, but somewhat earlier cites Christ’s words which link the Jews’ disbelief in His miracles to disobedience to Moses and secret unbelief in his law, which proceed from moral callousness and the seeking of their own, not God’s glory. “There is one that accuses you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed Me: for he wrote of Me. But if ye believed not his writings, how shall ye believe My words?” (Jn. 5:45-47).

Yet another puzzle remains which is often put to theologians: Why is the resurrection of Lazarus mentioned neither by the evangelist who cites the Lord’s parable of the inheritor of paradise of the same name, nor by the other two synoptic evangelists? Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow asked this question on one Academy examination, and when no one undertook to answer it, he replied thus: when the first three Gospels were written, Lazarus was still alive and, forever burdened as it were by the inquiries of those around him concerning what his soul experienced when it separated from his body, he would have become upset and embarrassed should this event have been made public in all the Churches during his lifetime; therefore, it was included only in the fourth Gospel, which was written after the death of Lazarus.

The scholarly biographer of Metropolitan Philaret marvels at the wisdom and simplicity of this explanation, but he did not know that this explanation is drawn entirely from the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion. The pre-eminence of the late metropolitan over his colleagues lies in the fact that in their introductory research the latter merely travelled along the paths of the negative critics, trying to defeat them with their own weapon, and studied the Bible too little outside of these polemical maneuvres, while the metropolitan delved into it and into the Church’s Tradition, not only with a critical interest, but with a positive one, free of polemic.

A similar point of view will help us clear up an even more frequent problem. From the very sequence of the narrative of the fourth Gospel, we can see that the Apostle is writing a supplementary narrative to books that were written earlier concerning events already known to his readers. Such a supplementary narrative is the description of the miracle performed on Lazarus who was four days dead, composed with the same clarity of detail which in general distinguishes St. John’s accounts from those of the first three evangelists, and completely demolishes the pitiful theory of the German negative critics on the spuriousness of the fourth Gospel, which they allege was composed in the middle of the second century by “obscure gnostic philosophers.”

Thus, St. John wishes to relate the raising of Lazarus to those readers who knew of the anointing of the Lord with oil at the meal, of His Entrance into Jerusalem, and of the treachery of Judas, but did not know of this great miracle of the Lord, whereby He assured us of the General Resurrection.

Readers of the first Gospels may have been puzzled as to why the people of Jerusalem who before had met the Lord with wary curiosity and disputations, now so unanimously went forth to meet Him, rendering Him royal, and even divine, veneration. True, the Evangelist Luke says that the people glorified Him for all His miracles, but this hint* is not very clear to the reader, for the miracles of the Lord were known to the teachers of Jerusalem even during His previous visits to the city. Thus, only the Evangelist John, linking this event with the raising of Lazarus, dispels the reader’s perplexity.

It is with precisely this thought that he ended his narrative with the words: “For this cause the people also met Him, for that they heard that He had done this miracle” (Jn. 12:18). A similar, more detailed elucidation of events which were known, but not clear, to readers of the first three Gospels, we find in John’s account of the miracle of the five loaves and the Savior’s subsequent walking on the water. The fourth evangelist explains that the people, carried away by the miraculous visitation, wished to seize the Wonderworker by force and proclaim Him king. To escape the frenzy of the people, the Lord hid for a time in the desert, sending His disciples ahead by boat; and later, after the people had fallen asleep, the Lord, postponing the fulfilment of His intention until the next day, withdrew from the people by walking on the waters of the lake.

The tradition of the Church that the Evangelists did not record the Lord’s raising of Lazarus before the day of his second death renders quite plausible the theory that all of chapter eleven, or perhaps only the first 45 verses of it, as well as the second half of the first verse and verses 9-11, 17, and 18 of chapter twelve, were written by the Evangelist after he had completed the Gospel, that is, when Lazarus reposed a second time. We are led to such a conclusion by the narrator’s second return to the day of the raising of Lazarus (“six days before the Passover,” etc.) and to the solemn evening meal which took place that day at his home. Here we are told how Mary poured ointment on the Savior’s feet; while in chapter eleven, where, upon first mention of Mary and Martha, it is said: “It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair,” as of an event already known to the reader (but not from the first two Gospels, for there the pouring of ointment on the head of the Lord in the house of Simon the Leper is spoken of). Thus, it is very likely that the Gospel according to John was written during Lazarus’ life, and that the narrative of his resurrection was added by the Evangelist after his death, exactly as all of chapter twenty-one of that Gospel was added by the Apostle later, as a result of the stories spread during his old age that he would never die. This is why, let us add, the Gospel according to John has two concluding epilogues, each rather similar to the other: one at the end of chapter twenty, and another at the end of chapter twenty-one, in which his original silence concerning the appearance of the Lord at the Sea of Tiberias is explained by the words “if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” Thus the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, written down by one of the first three evangelists, the synoptics, was, by the resurrection of Lazarus and the unbelief of the Jews described by the Evangelist John, actually vindicated in its puzzling idea expressed in the words: “if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” But did the Evangelist have this internal connection between the event and the parable in mind? There are no direct indications of this in the Gospel, but he unintentionally lets reference to the unalterable obstinacy of the unbelief of the Jews slip from his pen and, having finished his depiction of the events of these two great days in the earthly life of the Savior, in disregard of his usual manner, he abandons the tone of an objective, unbiased narrator, and says: “But though He had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on Him: That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with. their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. These things said Esaias, when he saw His glory and spake of Him” (Jn. 12:37-41).

Indeed the unbelief of the leaders of the Jews and of the more influential teachers of Jerusalem, not yielding before such a striking, obvious miracle performed in the sight of a whole crowd of people, is one of the amazing phenomena of the history of mankind; thenceforth, it ceased being unbelief, and became rather a conscious opposition to the obvious truth (“Now have they both seen and hated both Me and My Father” -Jn. 15:24), which is also expressed in the mood of the chief priests and the multitude of the people at the trial before Pilate.

In all five of his works, the Evangelist John discloses to his readers his main theme: that, as the world, that is, human obstinacy and malice, fought against Christ, even though His righteousness shone upon the world like the sun, so will it fight against His followers, hating their righteous life as Cain hated Abel (I Jn. 3:12), so will it hate God and His servants to the end of time, despite the manifest works of His might and His righteous retribution (Rev. 9:20, et al.)

We have long wished to publish an analysis of St. John’s writings as works which supplement the New Testament teachings of the first evangelists with a view to encouraging the Christian martyrs and shaming the faint-hearted (Rev. 21:8), both of which groups were awaiting the thousand-year reign of Christ in the lifetime of their own generation (II Thess. 2); official duties, however, deprive us of the opportunity of undertaking this worthwhile task in the near future, but we invite other lovers of the word of God to do so. Having set about it, they would see that all the narratives of the fourth Gospel are permeated and bound together by this thought; the entire Apocalypse is devoted to it, as are all three of the epistles of the Apostle.

The above-mentioned hindrance does not afford us an opportunity to verify our conjecture as to why the Lord called the blessed poor man of His parable by name. All the same, we know one very authoritative corroboration for it in Church teaching: viz., for six days, the whole of the sixth week of the Great Fast, the Church exalts Lazarus who was four days dead and the Lazarus of the parable. Having in mind not the enemies of Christ, but those who worship Him, who gather in the holy churches for the podvig of prayer, the Church teaches us to understand under the guise of both Lazaruses our sovereign mind and conscience, which the sinner neglects as the Rich Man did Lazarus, and which, having died within man’s soul, can be restored to life (like Lazarus who was four days dead) only by the power of Christ; but this connection is nearly the same which we indicated at the beginning of this article, the only difference being that here the historical Lazarus (four days dead) also takes on the significance of a moral symbol.

Instead of the struggle between faith and unbelief, the struggle in the soul of man between the passions and the conscience is depicted, since those who do not believe do not appear among those who pray; on the other hand, according to the teachings of Christ, the struggle between faith and unbelief takes place not in the realm of abstract thought, but is shown to be a particular aspect of the struggle between good and evil in our soul, the struggle between the passions and the conscience. Herein lies the explanation of the Lord’s words: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” The hard-hearted Jews’ disbelief in the risen Lazarus has borne out this saying with such force that now no one can consider it an exaggeration.

* There is a similar hint in the third Gospel: “But I am among you as he that serverth” (Lk. 22:27), which is elucidated in the fourth Gospel by the account of the Lord’s washing the feet of His disciples at the Mystical Supper.

Translated by Seraphim F. Englehardt from the series The Biography and Works of His Beatitude Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev and Galich, edited and compiled by Archbishop Nikon (Rklitsky), (New York: 1969) Vol. XVII, pp. 49-54.

Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 30, No. 2, March-April, 1980, pp. 18-22. Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.

What is Orthodoxy?

By Archbishop Averky of Syracuse of blessed memory.

On the first Sunday of the Great Fast our Church celebrates the triumph of Orthodoxy, the victory of true Christian teaching over all perversions and distortions thereof — heresies and false teachings. On the second Sunday of the Great Fast it is as though this triumph of Orthodoxy is repeated and deepened in connection with the celebration of the memory of one of the greatest pillars of Orthodoxy, the hierarch Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, who by his grace-bearing eloquence and the example of his highly ascetic private life put to shame the teachers of falsehood who dared reject the very essence of.Orthodoxy, the podvig of prayer and fasting, which enlightens the human mind with the light of grace and makes it a communicant of the divine glory.

Alas! How few people there are in our times, even among the educated, and at times even among contemporary “theologians” and those in the ranks of the clergy, who understand correctly what Orthodoxy is and wherein its essence lies. They approach this question in an utterly external, formal manner and resolve it too primitively, even naively, overlooking its depths completely and not at all seeing the fullness of its spiritual contents.

The superficial opinion of the majority notwithstanding, Orthodoxy is not merely another of the many “Christian confessions” now in existence, or as it is expressed here in America “denominations.” Orthodoxy is the true, undistorted, unperverted by any human sophistry or invention, genuine teaching of Christ in all its purity and fullness — the teaching of faith and piety which is life according to the Faith.

Orthodoxy is not only the sum total of dogmas accepted as true in a purely formal manner. It is not only theory, but practice; it is not only right Faith, but a life which agrees in everything with this Faith. The true Orthodox Christian is not only he who thinks in an Orthodox manner, but who feels according to Orthodoxy and lives Orthodoxy, who strives to embody the true Orthodox teaching of Christ in his life.

“The words that I speak unto you are spirit and life”—thus the Lord Jesus Christ spoke to His disciples of His divine teaching (Jn. 6: 63). Consequently, the teaching of Christ is not only abstract theory merely, cut off from life, but spirit and life. Therefore, only he who thinks Orthodoxy, feels Orthodoxy and lives Orthodoxy can be considered Orthodox in actuality.

At the same time one must realize and remember that Orthodoxy is not only and always that which is officially called “Orthodox,” for in our false and evil times the appearance everywhere of pseudo-Orthodoxy which raises its head and is established in the world is an extremely grievous but, regrettably, an already unquestionable fact. This false Orthodoxy strives fiercely to substitute itself for true Orthodoxy, as in his time Antichrist will strive to supplant and replace Christ with himself.

Orthodoxy is not merely some type of purely earthly organization which is headed by patriarchs, bishops and priests who hold the ministry in the Church which officially is called “Orthodox.” Orthodoxy is the mystical “Body of Christ,” the Head of which is Christ Himself (see Eph. 1:22-23 and Col. 1:18, 24 et seq.), and its composition includes not only priests but all who truly believe in Christ, who have entered in a lawful way through Holy Baptism into the Church He founded, those living upon the earth and those who have died in the Faith and in piety.

The Orthodox Church is not any kind of “monopoly” or “business” of the clergy as think the ignorant and those alien to the spirit of the Church. It is not the patrimony of this or that hierarch or priest. It is the close-knit spiritual union of all who truly believe in Christ, who strive in a holy manner to keep the commandments of Christ with the sole aim of inheriting that eternal blessedness which Christ the Savior has prepared for us, and if they sin out of weakness, they sincerely repent and strive “to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8).

The Church, it is true, may not be removed completely from the world, for people enter her who are still living on the earth, and therefore the “earthly” element in her composition and external organization is unavoidable, yet the less of this “earthly” element there is, the better it will be for her eternal goals. In any case this “earthly” element should not obscure or suppress the purely spiritual element—the matter of salvation of the soul unto eternal life—for the sake of which the Church was both founded and exists.

The first and fundamental criterion, which we may use as a guide to distinguish the True Church of Christ from the false Churches (of which there are now so many!), is the fact that it has preserved the Truth intact, undistorted by human sophistries, for according to the Word of God, “the Church is the pillar and ground of truth” (I Tim. 3: 15), and therefore in her there can be no falsehood. Any which in its name officially proclaims or confirms any falsehood is already not the Church. Not only the higher servants of the Church, but the ranks of believing laymen must shun every falsehood, remembering the admonition of the Apostle: ”Wherefore, putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25), or “Lie not to one another” (Col. 3:9). Christians must always remember that according to the words of Christ the Savior, lying is from the devil, who “is a liar, and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). And so, where there is falsehood there is not the True Orthodox Church of Christ! There is instead a false church which the holy visionary vividly and clearly depicted in his Apocalypse as “a great whore that sitteth upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication” (Rev. 17:1-2).

Even in the Old Testament from the prophets of God we see that unfaithfulness to the True God frequently was represented by the image of adultery (see, for example, Ezek. 16:8-58, or 23:2-49). And it is terrifying for us not only to speak, but even to think that in our insane days we would have to observe not a few attempts to turn the very Church of Christ into a “brothel,”—and this not only in the above figurative sense, but also in the literal sense of this word, when it is so easy to justify oneself, fornication and every impurity are not even considered sins! We saw an example of this in the so-called “Living Churchmen” and “renovationists” in our unfortunate homeland after the Revolution, and now in the person of all the contemporary “modernists” who strive to lighten the easy yoke of Christ (Matt. 11:30) for themselves and betray the entire ascetic structure of our Holy Church, legalizing every transgression and moral impurity. To speak here about Orthodoxy, of course, is in no way proper despite the fact that the dogmas of the Faith remain untouched and unharmed!

True Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is alien to every dead formalism. In it there is no blind adherence to the “letter of the law,” for it is “spirit and life.” Where, from an external and purely formal point of view, everything seems quite correct and strictly legal, this does not mean that it is so in reality. In Orthodoxy there can be no place for Jesuitical casuistry; the favorite dictum of worldly jurists can. not be applied: “One may not trample upon the law—one must go around it.”

Orthodoxy is the one and only Truth, the pure Truth, without any admixture or the least shadow of falsehood, lie, evil or fraud.

The most essential thing in Orthodoxy is the podvig of prayer and fasting which the Church particularly extols during the second week of the Great Fast as the double-edged “wondrous sword” by which we strike the enemies of our salvation—the dark demonic power. It is through this podvig that our soul is illumined with grace-bearing divine light, as teaches St. Gregory Palamas, who is ‘triumphantly honored by the Holy Church on the second Sunday of the Great Fast. Glorifying his sacred memory, the Church calls this wondrous hierarch “the preacher of grace,” “the beacon of the Light,” “the preacher of the divine light,” “an immovable pillar for the Church.”

Christ the Savior Himself stressed the great significance of the podvig of prayer and fasting when His disciples found themselves unable to cast out demons from an unfortunate boy who was possessed. He told them clearly,`”This kind (of demon) goeth not out save by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). Interpreting this passage in the gospel narrative, our great patristic theologian-ascetic, the hierarch Theophan the Recluse asks, “May we think that where there is no prayer and fasting, there is a demon already?” And he replies, “We may. Demons, when entering into a person do not always betray their entry, but hide themselves, secretly teaching their hosts every evil and to turn aside every good. That person may be convinced that he is doing everything himself, while he is only carrying out the will of his enemy. Only take up prayer and fasting and the enemy will immediately leave and will wait elsewhere for an opportunity to return; and he really will return if prayer and fasting are soon abandoned” (Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 245-246).

From this a direct conclusion may be reached: where fasting and prayer are disregarded, neglected or completely set aside, there is no trace of Orthodoxy—there is the domain of demons who treat man as their own pathetic toy.

Behold, therefore, where all contemporary “modernism” leads, which demands “reform” in our Orthodox Church! All these liberal free thinkers and their lackies, who strive to belittle the significance of prayer and fasting, however much they shout and proclaim their alleged faithfulness to the dogmatic teaching of our Orthodox Church, cannot be considered really Orthodox, and have shown themselves to be apostates from Orthodoxy.

We will always remember that by itself totally formal Orthodoxy has no goal if it does not have “spirit and life”—and the “spirit and life” of Orthodoxy are first and foremost in the podvig of prayer and fasting; moreover, the genuine fasting of which the Church teaches is understood in this instance to be abstinence in every aspect, and not merely declining to taste non-Lenten foods.

Without podvig there is altogether no true Christianity, that is to say, Orthodoxy. See what Christ, the First Ascetic, Himself clearly says; “Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). The true Christian, the Orthodox Christian, is only he who strives to emulate Christ in the bearing of the cross and is prepared to crucify himself in the Name of.Christ. The holy Apostles clearly taught this. Thus the Apostle Peter writes: “If when you do well and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is accepted with God. For even here unto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow his steps” (I Pet. 2:2-21). In precisely the same way the holy Apostle Paul says repeatedly in his epistles that all true Christians must be ascetics, and the ascetic labor o’ the Christian consists of crucifying himself for the sake of Christ: “They that are Christians have crucified the flesh together with the passions and lusts” (Gal. 5:24). A favorite expression of St. Paul is that we must be crucified with Christ that we might rise with Him. He puts forth this thought in a variety of his sayings in many of his epistles.

You see, therefore, that one who loves only to spend time enjoying himself and does not think of self-denial and self-sacrifice, but continually wallows in every possible fleshly pleasure and delight is completely un-Orthodox, un-Christian. Concerning this the great ascetic of Christian antiquity, the Venerable Isaac the Syrian, taught well: “The way of God is a daily cross. No one ascends to heaven living cooly (i.e. comfortably, carefree, pleased with himself, without struggle). And of the cool path, we know where it ends” (Works, p. 158). This is that “wide and broad way” which, in the words of the Lord Himself, “leadeth to destruction” (Matt. 7:13).

This then is what is Orthodoxy, or True Christianity!

(Originally appeared in Orthodox Life, vol. 26, no. 3 (May-June, 1976), pp. 1-5. )

Living for the True God

This All-Holy Trinity, we pious Orthodox Christians, glorify and worship. He is the true God, and all other so-called gods are demons. And it is not we alone that believe, glorify, and worship the Holy Trinity, but angels, archangels, and all the heavenly hosts, as numerous as the stars of the heavens and the grains of the sand of the sea unceasingly praise in hymns and worship and glorify this All-Holy Trinity. Again, out of love for the Holy Trinity men and women as numerous as the stars of the heavens and the grains of the sand of the sea spilt their blood, and as many renounced the world and went to the deserts and led a life of spiritual endeavor, and still as many lived in the world with self-mastery and chastity, fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and other practices; and all went to Paradise and rejoice forever.

What does Christ tell us to do?

To think of our sins, of death, of Hell, of Paradise, of our soul which is more precious than the whole world, to eat and drink as much as is sufficient for us, similarly to have clothes that suffice, while the rest of our time we should spend for our soul, to render it a bride of Christ. Then we should be called men, and angels on earth. If, however, we concern ourselves with eating and drinking and sinning…we should not be called men but beasts. Therefore make your body a servant of the soul; then you may be called men.

Source: the Teachings of S. Cosmas Aitolos

On voluntary and involuntary sins

On voluntary and involuntary sins and what is the reason they are committed

There is sin, which is committed on account of a sickness whereby a person is attracted involuntarily, and there is sin which is committed voluntarily; there is also sin that exists out of one’s ignorance, which is committed depending on the circumstance. Then again, sin is committed out of one’s persistence in a sin, because of their habitual tendency towards evil. And although all these manners and kinds of sins are blameworthy, they nevertheless differ amongst themselves comparatively as regards punishment, given that the one manner is greater than the other, and the blameworthiness of the one manner is greater (and whose repentance is welcomed with difficulty), whereas the other’s repentance and forgiveness is easier.

And just as Adam, Eve and the serpent had sinned – and all three received the reward for their sin but inherited the curse with a significant difference – the same occurs with each of their sons and descendants, according to their predisposition; and whatever desire they may have for sin, they will savour the appropriate intensity of “hell”.

So, if one does not want to commit sin but on account of negligence (which he has in virtues), he is attracted violently towards it – because he is not engaged in it, even though it displeases him to find himself in sin – his “hell” (torment) will be severe. But if it happens that someone who engages in virtue is touched by a sin, the mercy of God is close by him, in order to cleanse him.

Different is the sin that is committed when a person is found to be engaged and persisting in the labours of virtue, being careful day and night – but because of a certain ignorance or certain contrary things on the path of virtue, or on account of the waves of the passions that are always aroused in his limbs, or on account of a change that may befall him for the testing of his self-government – the “scales that weigh him” will lean only slightly to the “left”, and, drawn by the weakness of the body, he will fall into a kind of sin – for which however he will be saddened and will be anxious and groan with a pained soul for the harassment that was imposed on him by the enemies.

Also different is the sin that is committed when a person is found lax and negligent in the labour of virtue, so that by abandoning altogether the path of virtue and hastening like a servant to the obedience of pleasure towards all sin, he shows zeal in how to invent arts and machinations for the full enjoyment of sin, and is ready – like some kind of servant – to diligently execute the will of his enemy, and to prepare his limbs as weapons of the devil, without in the least remembering repentance, nor heading towards virtue or desisting and putting an end to his disastrous path.

Yet another kind is the sin that is committed on account of a slip-up and falling out, which can occur on the path of virtue, for – as the Fathers have said – fall-outs and oppositions and compulsions and their likes are to be found on the path of virtue.

And finally, there is the downfall of the soul and the complete loss and final abandonment.

From the above therefore, it becomes obvious that when one falls, one must not altogether forget the love of his own father; rather, if he happens to fall into various misdemeanors, let him not show negligence towards the good and pause on the path of virtue; instead, even when he is defeated and fallen, let him stand up again and be ever-present in his fight against the enemy, and let him each day make a new beginning upon the foundations of the ruins of his edifice, while keeping in his mouth until his departure from this world the prophetic words: “let not my enemy rejoice that I have fallen, for I shall rise up again; and if I happen to sit in the dark, the Lord will shine upon me”. Let him not abandon and cease the battle until the hour of death, and let him not betray himself upon the defeat of his soul, while he still has breath. But, even if one day the vessel of his soul is shattered, and the merchandises of his virtues drowned, let him not cease to look after it and take care of it; instead, with borrowing and transitioning to other ships let him travel with hope until the Lord sees his struggles and on pitying his shattered state sends him His mercy and gives him strength to sustain the burning arrows of the enemy. And when he thus receives wisdom from God, he will then be a wise, sick person who had not excised his hope. It is far better to be vilified for a few things, rather than for the abandonment of all things; it is for this, that Abba Martinianos encourages and admonishes us to not become lax and cower in the face of the multitude of struggles and in the various ways of battle, but rather to persevere on the path of virtue and not turn back and deliver our victory to the enemy on account of one ugly work, for this blessed Elder – as a caring father – had with orderliness said these things.

Children, if you are true fighters preoccupied with virtue and caring for the salvation of your soul, you must desire and present your Nous clean to Christ, and work for that activity which is favourable to Him, because you must by all means undertake for the love of Christ every battle that is roused by natural passions, and for the resistance to this world, as well as the malice of the demons and their machinations. Do not fear the unflagging and persistent and violent nature of battle, nor hesitate about the duration of the struggle. Do not tire when frightened by the armies of the enemy, nor fall into the pit of despair. If you should happen to temporarily trip and sin, and suffer something in this major battle, and if you are beaten and wounded face-on, let this not in the least hinder your good intention, but instead, persist in that good labour which you had preferred, and thus achieve this desired and praiseworthy labour: that is, to appear steadfast and immoveable in that battle and painted with the blood of your wounds, never ceasing the fight with your opponent demons.

These are the counsels of the major Elder Martinianos, according to which, you must not be lax and negligent. Woe to that monk who appears to have lied about his promises; and, having trampled on his own conscience had extended and given his hand to the devil, who will proudfully come upon him for a minor or major sin, which will render him unable to thereafter stand up and face his enemies with the ruptured part of his soul. And I wonder, with what countenance will he face the Judge, when his cleansed friends and colleagues encounter each other, from whom he had departed and walked on the path of perdition and had lapsed from the Saints’ outspokenness before God, and from the prayer that ascends from a pure heart and rises up to heaven, passing unhindered through the Angelic ranks and achieves its petition, returning joyfully back to the mouth that had emitted it?

What is even more terrible is that by separating himself from his virtuous brethren, Christ will likewise separate him from them on that day, when the luminous cloud will be carrying their brightened bodies on it, and introducing them to the heavenly gates.

This is why the irreverent will not be resurrected on the day of judgment, given that their actions have been condemned from here; nor will the sinners find themselves before the will of the righteous on the day of the resurrection of the dead.


Source: Essay No.41 The Ascetic Words of Abba Isaac of Syria (book)







St. Nil Sorsky

St. Nil Sorsky (1433-1508) was the most significant figure in the promotion of hesychasm and eremitism in early modern Russia. Though he only composed two works, modest guidelines for monks and hermits, their influence and the influence of his hermitage were instrumental in a widespread eremitic movement in Russia that persisted for centuries. Although Nil Sorsky is associated with the Non-possessor controversy, this article addresses only his Tradition (Predanie) and Rule (Ustav).

Nil Maikov was born of the upper class, well educated, and with a great capacity for advanced learning. He spent time as a young monk at the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, where the abbot promoted hesychasm, that is, a form of mediation and continuous prayer. Nil was encouraged to study and traveled to Constantinople, Palestine, and Greece. In Greece he spent fruitful time at the monastery of Mt. Athos. The experience of Mt. Athos deepened his understanding of hesychasm and additionally offered him examples of administrative models for monasticism and eremitism heretofore unknown in Russian Orthodoxy.

Nil returned to the Kirillo monastery, but the spiritual environment had changed. He decided to leave and pursue his plan. By the Sora River, in an isolated and swampy area, Nil founded a hermitage. (A great deal of hagiographic material accompanies this period and will not detain us here.) His model was the skete, based on the desert hermits and the practice of Mt. Athos.

The skete is a hermitage of no more than two or three hermits, an elder and younger disciple(s). They pursued a schedule and routine of practice of their own devising, usually engaging in continuous prayer, reading, writing, and the editing and copying of manuscripts and crafting of icons and religious articles to be exchanged for provisions. Their time and energies, therefore, were entirely individual. What they had in common was the store of food from donations, and the availability of the elder for counsel. The hermits were not to engage in money-making labor, and though they gardened or foraged for themselves, the manuscripts or icons they produced elicited alms, which were kept when sufficient or given to the poor when more than enough.

Eremitic life

The emphasis of the eremitic life was self-development, a contemplative life centered on intellect and will. The aspirant should reduce externals and then seek a spiritual guide for specific directions concerning disposition and readiness. However, Nil Sorsky understood that his contemporaries faced a paucity of spiritual guides. He had no qualms recommending the efficacy of the writings of the Church Fathers on all matters spiritual and practical. Nil’s own modest writings reflect a thorough familiarity with the Church Fathers, whose writings he simply calls the “holy writings.” But these were prerequisites to the actual eremitic life. As Nil emphasizes: “The strong … struggle in solitude.” As commentator Maloney notes: “The first step is to return to God by leaving all worldly attachments and retiring into solitude.”

At this point in the self-development of the hermit, Nil Sorsky introduces hesychasm, which Maloney describes as “a Christian form of living the spiritual life that had its roots in the first hermits who fled into the barren deserts of Egypt and Syria during the fourth century.” The hesychasm inherited by Nil Sorsky was based on the core school of Sinai that included Nilus of Sinai, John Climacus, Hesychius of Sinai, Philotheus, and Pseudo-Macarius. This school of thought was advanced in the 11th century by Symeon the New Theologian. The revived hesychasm of Gregory of Sinai in the 14th century took root in Mt. Athos, where Nil Sorsky had resided for a while and experienced first-hand. By the time Nil established his Sora hermitage, he had mastered the literary sources noted above and had experienced the essentials of hesychasm enough to put them into practice in his native land.

The ultimate goal of hesychasm was ascetic and mystical, culminating in the union of the individual and God. Hesychasm begins in physical solitude, which Nil believed was best provided by the hermitage in the form of the skete. However, physical separation from the world and from others assured withdrawal from speech, hearing, and seeing, but it did not automatically assure hesychasm. The second necessary factor was silence.

John Climacus describes silence as an intellectual and mental process of withdrawal of concern and desire. This process purifies the mind and inner attention. It empties the mind of thoughts, and provides for a still-pointedness or thoughtlessness, in the sense of possessing nothing, not even desiring to possess anything.

To maintain this purity of heart and mind, the Church Fathers recommend prayer, continuous prayer which fills the mind and heart. This state of emptiness, maintained by continuous prayer, is called hesychia, meaning stillness, quiet, tranquility, and serenity. The function of continuous prayer, then, is to serve as a mechanism for maintaining vigilance and focus. In Greek, the term nepsis refers to vigilance or sobriety. Evagrius calls it praxis, the practice of virtue which purifies the passions or emotions. Other terms might be prudence, discretion, or self-discipline.

How does the hesychast maintain this ideal state of tranquility or silence? As mentioned, the commentators recommend continuous prayer, but the discovery of Mt. Athos was the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer was a formulaic repetition or recitation combined with a physical technique familiar in all meditative traditions: a specific physical posture, minimal breathing, and a moving of the mind into the heart, [….]

The mystical element of hesychasm is the culmination of the entire process, what Sorsky calls “ineffable joy.”  he states,

“The Kingdom of Heaven consists in nothing other than this blissful condition,” .

When one experiences such an ineffable joy, this state suddenly cuts off all vocal prayer from the mouth, the tongue, the heart — guardian of all thoughts — and the mind — the seed of feelings. All are silenced, along with the different thoughts that normally soar about like fast-flying birds. Now thought does not govern prayer but is directed by another power; … [the nous] dwells on things ineffable and does not know where it is.


The writings of Nil Sorsky are not simply generous quotations from the Church Fathers but a seamless integration or synthesis of thought that supports and extends Sorsky’s own points. One of the hallmarks of his writing is the assiduous avoidance of hagiographical or legendary material. His closely reasoned arguments and counsel will not appeal to mere emotion or sentimentality. Nil avoids appeals to authority, use of rhetoric, or figures of speech to pursue psychological and practical aspects of spirituality. In all of this, the mental preparation of the hermit is seen as a prerequisite to the lifestyle.

Nil’s translator has identified the many Church Fathers quoted. The favorites are John Climacus, Isaac the Syrian, Gregory of Sinai, and Symeon the New Theologian. Overall Nil uses over a dozen Fathers. He uses so many not to evoke their authority but to extend his concept of hesychasm, as already suggested. In fact, the sources he does not quote are some of his foundational inspirations: Evagrius and Pseudo-Macarius. From Evagrius, Nil derives the concepts of intellectual contemplation, the central role of asceticism, and the notion of withdrawal, disengagement, and non-desire in apatheia. From the Pseudo-Macarius comes the trajectory of solitude and silence culminating in penthos, the sense of smallness of self, compunction, humility, and the gift of tears. Added to all of these ideas is the Jesus Prayer popularized at Mt. Athos and otherwise unknown in Russia at the time.

The Tradition (Predanie)

The Tradition is an early and brief work intended to offer a general guideline to the hermit-disciples, not a rule so much as an orientation.

This is the tradition of the elder, Nil, hermit, to his disciples and to all who may find it to their liking concerning the skete-type of life as found in the writings of the holy Fathers.

Early in The Tradition, Nil establishes the lifestyle and work of those he calls “my closest brothers, one in spirit, not to be considered as my disciples.” Their work is in intellectual work in the cell and their practical work as artisans. The hermits do not sell but receive alms. However, paradoxically, they have no alms to give, for they should own nothing not needed. Their alms are in helping others with spiritual discernment.

In our cell it is fitting that the brothers and strangers who visit us should be instructed [by the elder], skilled in the art of listening and ability to direct souls.

The disciples will, in time, acquire these skills as well.

Nil emphasizes evangelical poverty, extending simplicity to include the absence of gold and silver objects, even in sacred vessels, and to the lack of chapel adornment, even to pillars and structure. Simplicity is extended to food and drink, to an emphasis on hard work (both manual and intellectual), and to personal possessions. In keeping with the style of Mt. Athos, women were prohibited from nearing the skete, as were beardless youths.

The Rule (Ustav)

With his second and late writing, Nil concentrates on the theme of spiritual struggle. Using the Church Fathers, Nil identifies the overall aspects of spirituality, on how to gain mental and psychological strength, and what to expect to encounter in pursuing the ascetic life. Again, the premise is that this spiritual pursuit is accomplished within the context of eremitism. The Rule concludes with characteristics of the life of the successful hermit.

In his introductory remarks, Nil stresses his indebtedness to the Church Fathers, commending his readers to follow their example, even in insignificant things. In their works are the key to heart activity and mental attentiveness, which ultimately satisfy the yearnings of the spirit. Hesychasm is the technique of hermits and monks alike. Using St. Agathon’s metaphor, Nil describes bodily action as the mere leaf and spiritual action as the fruit, thus recommending the interior disposition over the externals of ritual, sound, and sight.

The level of psychology for meditation reflected in Nil’s writing shows the comprehensiveness of hesychasm. Hesychasm identifies the presentation of a thought, the dialogue of self with the thought, acceptance and captivation with the thought, and culminates with the self’s adaptation and sheer passion. That thoughts will present themselves to the mind is inevitable, but to dialogue, entertain, or converse with the thought is a vanity of self believing in its own undisciplined power. By this time thought is an active engagement and loss of silence.

The methodology of hesychasm seeks to restore silence. This is accomplished by heart activity, especially continual prayer or the Jesus Prayer, says Nil. The entire self is readied for response, including posture, breathing, concentration, and the placing of the mind in the heart. This latter image is a visualization based on abstracting the mind from thought into an organ of silence. Thus continual prayer reverberates to the exclusion of thought, like an Eastern mantra. When weary of prayer, Nil advises the hermit to switch to chant, then to reading aloud (hence the value of skete companions), each for about one hour.

Nil summarizes this cycle:

When one allows any distraction to disturb the mind, such draws the mind away from silence. For silence is had only in peace and tranquility, since God is peace and is beyond all agitation and noise.

But Nil carefully distinguishes “hesychast prayer of deep silence” from “the prayer of monks who live and observe the rule of the coenobitic life.” The practice of the hesychast no longer needs chants or reading of the “exploits” of the lives of the Church Fathers, including the desert hermits. Here Nil transcends hagiography and even conventional ritual or practical moral example. “No oars are needed if the sails of a boat are filled with wind to bring it across the sea of passion,” he writes in a felicitous passage. Hence Nil rejects all-night vigils, uninterrupted chanting, “lip-prayer” and like external practices, even when some Church Fathers recommend them. Contemplative prayer is beyond expression or content.  Nil is confident that hesychasm is the essential spiritual method.

Concerning those who are progressing and who have reached a state of enlightenment, they are not required to recite psalms, but they are to practice silence, continuous prayer, and contemplation, since they are living in union with God.

Nil quotes Isaac the Syrian about refraining from speech, for then,

the heart is silenced, which stands as a guard over fantasies along with the mind, which directs the feeling senses and controls the thoughts that are like swift and bold flying birds.

How does the novice attain this level of practice? Nil warns, as mentioned earlier, that there are few reliable spiritual directors, so that the immediate step is to “distance ourselves as far as possible from the vanities of this world.” The immediate need of the aspirant and hermit is a routine of reading and manual labor, which develops humility. The aspirant should live in his cell with great zeal and attention. As much as his strength allows, let him live the ascetic life in all details in accord with the holy writings, fulfilling all with piety in humility and always with zeal, without any laziness or weakening.

A section of The Rule entitled “Guidelines to All Activities in Our Skete Life,” recapitulates the themes mentioned above: the use of prayer, chanting, reading, augmented by fasting, vigils, prostrations as a form of physical exercise [also used in Eastern systems] and manual labor. These are the practices of aspirants and disciples, the prerequisites to hesychasm. Nil’s emphasis on physical fitness is notable: “Bodily labor in the required measure is demanded of those endowed with a healthy and strong body.”

Lengthy sections follow, itemizing specific vices and how the aspirant can address them. In the process Nil further elaborates skete practice.

Gluttony is overcome by recalling the fleetingness of consuming and the corruption of food. Eat sufficiently but always short of fullness. Stop so as to still be a little hungry. Eat whatever is placed before you. Do not eat earlier than the ninth hour (3 p.m.), and only that one meal a day or with a late collation. Abstain from meat but do not refuse it (as alms).

Fornication is overcome by avoiding excessive self-recrimination and confession. Avoid all contact or conversation with women and youths.

Covetousness includes not just gold and silver but clothing, tableware, tools for manual labor — any material object. For necessities, obtain only what is “cheap, unadorned, and easily obtained.” Conquering covetousness means not merely doing without but not even desiring.

Anger is the recollection of things done and the desire to avenge them. Cut off memory and thought.

Sadness is a form of self-pity and leads to despair, impatience, and sloth. In sadness one perceives oneself as disposed and abandoned to grievous hardship by God. Nil advises not to “exaggerate with our human ideas these hardships.” One must stop complaining and disengage from imagined persecution. Mourn our weakness in order to foster repentance, not out of sadness.

Acedia follows sadness and is a bane to those “who live the solitary, silent life,” because of the necessity of meeting burdens unsupported and alone — another positive argument for the skete. While it may be good to persist alone in one’s cell, it may be better to converse with “someone skilled and edifying in the spiritual life.”

Vanity is the assumption of worthiness and praise of corrupt actions. Vanity is the precursor of pride.

Pride is a form of spiritual uncleanness, an arrogance extending externally the weakness of vanity. Pride’s sources are many: material success, conduct, intellect, family, class, talent. Human achievements easily engender pride. Pride is thwarted by recalling the sum lowliness of our situations as human beings, our dependence, and our transient natures. Non-assertiveness, acceptance, and the extirpating of desire, combat pride.
Nil concludes the section on vices with a perspective on death and judgment. His excellent reflections on the transitoriness of life and the vanity of possessions are indeed universal, transcending cultures and religions:

What glory attained on earth will remain incorruptible? Every stack of hay is of the weakest stuff and all dreams are most illusory. In one hour death receives all of these. … And so, reflect on the vanity of this world to which during our life we are so attached and for which we work in vain. The road on which we journey is so short. Our life is nothing but smoke, vapor, a cloud, and ash. It appears and quickly vanished. Even to call it a road does not have much meaning.

Nil then describes the gift of tears, a phenomenon born of profound humility and reflection, a pain and sorrow for deeds, lost opportunities, and sins.

The final section of The Rule presents a summary of “prudent means,” which directly centers on the eremitic virtue of silence and solitude. The section capitulates the life of the hermit as, quoting Symeon the New Theologian, “one of silence without any anxiety.” Nil speaks of conversation as frost in a garden. In contrast, “Silence is where the flowers bloom and bring forth open, tender, young flowers that encircle the garden of the soul.” St. Isaac says that “A person who turns to the world becomes deprived of life. Nil elaborates that the hermit should “not even see any person of the world, neither hearing his words not listening to any news about such a person.”

But the hermit must accept the time and effort needed to cultivate the virtue of silence, for conventional religious disdain the entire method of the hermit. Therefore, the hermit must not even presume an attachment to hesychasm or mystical insight, taking refuge in discretion. Only a mature brother can pursue this path, and Nil recommends that the brother not pursue it alone.

For when he is alone and falls into acedia or is overcome by sleep or by sloth or despair, there is no one at that time to lift him up and give him encouragement.

The hermit life is not for those unwilling to pursue to the fullest extent the life of silence. In this, too, Nil follows the advice of John Climacus:

There are three excellent ways to live the monastic life: either to live alone in solitude as a hermit, or to live in silence with one or two other monks, or to live the common life in a coenobitic monastery.


Nil Sorsky presented his Rule as a reminder to his brothers, based on “my poor wisdom.” But he had clearly absorbed the wisdom of centuries of Christian tradition and discerned how to apply it in the context of hesychasm and eremitism.

The influence of Nil’s hermitage and writings spread throughout Russia and challenged his successors in the Non-possessor controversy, when his ideas were challenged and overthrown by ecclesiastical and secular political authorities, who perceived eremitism as radical in the theological, social, and psychological sense. But the eremitism of St. Nil Sorsky was firmed grounded on a strong and vibrant tradition that recalled the clear meaning and intention of the desert hermits, and ultimately the significance of the teachings of Jesus.

Nil Sorsky or Sorskiĭ: The Complete Writings. Edited and translated by George A. Maloney, preface by John L. Mina. New York: Paulist Press, 2003. Maloney, George A., Russian Hesychasm: The Spirituality of Nil Sorskij. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.


© 2007, the hermitary and Meng-hu