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Friday – First Week of Great Lent – Ladder Readings

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FRIDAY OF THE FIRST WEEK
OF THE GREAT LENT

THIRD HOUR

35. I must not fail to adorn the crown of this step with this emerald. Once I started a discussion on silence with some of the most experienced elders in the community. With a smile on their faces and in jovial mood they said to me in a friendly way: “We, Father John, being material, live a material life, preferring to wage war according to the measure of our weakness, and considering it better to struggle with men, who are sometimes fierce and some times penitent, than with demons who are continually raging and up in arms against us!”

36. One of those ever-memorable fathers who had great love for me according to God and was very outspoken, once said to me kindly: “If, wise man, you have within you the power of him who said, I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me; if the Holy Spirit has descended upon you with the dew of purity, as upon the Holy Virgin; if the power of the Highest has overshadowed you with patience; then like the Man (Christ our God), gird your loins with the towel of obedience; and having risen from the supper of silence, wash the feet of the brethren in a spirit of contrition; or rather, roll yourself under the feet of the community in spiritual self-abasement. At the gate of your heart place strict and unsleeping guards. Control your wandering mind in your distracted body. Amidst the actions and movements of your limbs, practise mental quiet (hesychia). And, most paradoxical of all, in the midst of commotion be unmoved in soul. Curb your tongue which rages to leap into arguments. Seventy times seven in the day wrestle with this tyrant. Fix your mind to your soul as to the wood of a cross to be struck like an anvil with blow upon blow of the hammers, to be mocked, abused, ridiculed, and wronged, without being in the least crushed or broken, but continuing to be quite calm and immovable. Shed your own will as a garment of shame, and thus stripped of it enter the practice ground. Array yourself in the rarely acquired breastplate of faith, not crushed or wounded by distrust towards your spiritual trainer. Check with the rein of temperance the sense of touch that leaps forward shamelessly. Bridle your eyes, which are ready to waste hour after hour looking at physical grandeur and beauty, by meditation on death. Gag your mind, overbusy with its private concerns, and thoughtlessly prone to criticize and condemn your brother, by the practical means of showing your neighbour all love and sympathy. By this will all men truly know, dearest father, that we are disciples of Christ, if, while living together, we have love one for another.” “Come, come,” said this good friend, “come and settle down with us and for living water drink derision at every hour. For David, having tried every pleasure under heaven, last of all said in bewilderment: Behold, what is good, or what is beautiful? Nothing else but that brethren should dwell together in unity. But if we have not yet been granted this good, that is, such patience and obedience, then it is best for us, having at least discovered our weakness, to live apart far from the athletic lists, and bless the combatants and pray they may be granted patience.” I was won over to the good arguments of this most excellent father and teacher, who disputed with me in an evangelical and prophetic manner, or rather as a friend; and without hesitation I agreed to give the honours to blessed obedience.

37. And now, when I have noted yet another profitable virtue of these blessed fathers, which comes as it were from paradise, I shall then come back to my own unlovely and worthless bunch of thistles. The pastor noticed that some repeatedly carried on conversation when we were standing in prayer. Such people he stood for a whole week by the church, and ordered them to make a prostration to everyone going in and out; and what was still more surprising, he did this even with the clergy, in fact, with the priests.

38. Noticing that one of the brothers stood during the psalm singing with more heartfelt feeling than many of the others, and that his movements and the changes of his face made it look as though he was talking to someone, especially at the beginning of the hymns, I asked him to explain what this habit of the blessed man meant. And knowing that it was for my benefit not to hide it, he told me: “I have the habit, Father John, at the very beginning, of collecting my thoughts, my mind and my soul, and summoning them, I cry to them: O come, let us worship and fall down before Christ, our King and God.”

39. Having earnestly observed the activities of the brother in charge of the refectory, I saw that he always had in his belt a small book, and I learnt that he wrote his thoughts in it each day and showed them all to the shepherd. And I saw that not only he, but also very many of the brethren there did the same. And this, as I heard, was by order of that great shepherd.

40. Once one of the brothers was expelled by him for slandering his neighbour to him and calling him a windbag and gossip. The expelled man did not leave the gates of the monastery for a whole week, begging to be granted entry and forgiveness. When that lover of souls learnt of this, and heard that this brother had had nothing to eat for six days, he told him: “If you have a resolute desire to live in the monastery, I will degrade you to the rank of a penitent.” And when the penitent gladly accepted this, the pastor ordered him to be taken to the separate monastery for those who were mourning over their falls. And that was done. But since we have mentioned that monastery, I shall now speak about it briefly.

41. At a distance of a mile from the great monastery was a place called the prison, deprived of every comfort. There neither smoke, nor wine, nor oil in the food, nor anything else could ever be seen but only bread and light vegetables. Here the pastor shut up, without permission to go out, those who fell into sin after entering the brotherhood; and not all together, but each in a separate and special cell, or at most in pairs. And he kept them there until the Lord gave him assurance of the amendment of each one. Over them he placed the sub-prior, a great man called Isaac, who required of those entrusted to him almost unceasing prayer. And to prevent despondency they had a large quantity of palm leaves. Such is the life, such is the rule, such is the conduct of those who truly seek the face of the God of Jacob!


SIXTH HOUR

42. To admire the labours of the saints is good; to emulate them wins salvation; but to wish suddenly to imitate their life in every point is unreasonable and impossible.

43. When we are bitten by remorse, let us remember our sins until the Lord, seeing the force of our efforts (the efforts of those who do violence to themselves for His sake), wipes out our sins and transforms the sorrow that is gnawing our heart into joy. For it is said: According to the multitude of my sorrows in my heart, thy consolations have gladdened my soul. At the right time let us not forget him who said to the Lord: O how many troubles and evils hast Thou shown me! Yet Thou didst turn and revive me; and from the depths of the earth after I had fallen, again Thou broughtest me up.

44. Blessed is he who, though maligned and disparaged every day, masters himself for the Lord’s sake. He will join the chorus of martyrs and boldly converse with the angels. Blessed is the monk who regards himself as hourly deserving every dishonour and disparagement. Blessed is he who mortifies his will to the end, and leaves the care of himself to his director in the Lord; for he will be placed at the right hand of the Crucified. He who will not accept a reproof, just or unjust, renounces his own salvation. But he who accepts it with an effort, or even without an effort, will soon receive the remission of his sins.

45. Show God in spirit your faith in your spiritual father and your sincere love for him. And God in unknown ways will suggest to him that he may be attached to you and kindly disposed towards you, just as you are well disposed towards him.

46. He who exposes every snake shows that he has real faith; but he who hides them will wander in trackless wastes.

47. A man will know his brotherly love and his genuine charity when he sees that he mourns for his brother’s sins, and rejoices at his progress and graces.

48. He whose will and desire in conversation is to establish his own opinion, even though what he says is true, should recognize that he is sick with the devil’s disease. And if he behaves like this only in conversation with his equals, then perhaps the rebuke of his superiors may heal him. But if he acts in this way even with those who are greater and wiser than he, then his malady is humanly incurable.

49. He who is not submissive in speech, clearly will not be so in act either. For he who is unfaithful in little is also unfaithful in much, and is intractable. He labours in vain, and he will get nothing from holy obedience but his own doom.

50. If anyone has his conscience in the utmost purity in the matter of obedience to his spiritual father, then he daily awaits death as if it were sleep, or rather life, and is not dismayed, knowing for certain that at the time of his departure, not he, but his director, will be called to account.

51. If anyone receives voluntarily some task from his father, and in doing it suffers a stumble, he should not ascribe the blame to the giver but to the receiver of the weapon. For he took the weapon for battle against the enemy, but has turned it against his own heart. But if he forced himself for the Lord’s sake to accept the task, though he previously explained his weakness to him who gave it, let him take courage; for though he has fallen, he is not dead.

52. I have forgotten to set before you, my friends, this sweet bread of virtue. I saw there men obedient in the Lord who subjected themselves to insults and dishonour for God’s sake, so that, having prepared themselves in this way, they might get used to not quailing before insults coming from others.

53. By resolving to make one’s confession, the soul is thereby held from sinning as by a bridle. For what we do not confess, that we do fearlessly as though in the dark.

54. When in the absence of the superior we imagine his face and think that he is always standing by us, and avoid every meeting, or word, or food, or sleep, or anything else that we think he would not like, then we have really learnt true obedience. Base-born children regard the absence of their teacher as a joy, but legitimate ones think it a loss.

55. I once asked one of the most experienced fathers and pressed him to tell me how humility is obtained by obedience. He said: “The obedient man who has discernment, even if he raises the dead and receives the gift of tears and freedom from conflict, will still think that it is the prayer of his spiritual father that has done it, and he remains foreign and alien to vain presumption. For how could he possibly pride himself on what is done, as he himself admits, by the help of his father, and not by his own effort?”

56. But the practice of the above virtues is unknown to the solitary. For his rigours have brought him conceit and suggest to him that his achievements are due to his own effort.

57. He who lives in obedience has eluded two snares and remains in future an obedient servant of Christ.


NINTH HOUR

The First Snare.

58. The devil battles with those in obedience, sometimes to defile them with bodily pollutions and make them hard-hearted, and sometimes to provoke more than usual restlessness. At other times he makes them dry and barren, sluggish in prayer, drowsy and confused by spiritual darkness, in order to tear them away from their struggle by making them think they have gained nothing by their obedience but are only backsliding. For he does not allow them time to reflect that often the providential withdrawal of our imagined goods or blessings leads us to the deepest humility.

59. However, some have often repelled that deceiver by patience; but while he is still speaking, another angel stands by us and after a little while tries to hoodwink us in another way.

The Second Snare.

I have seen some living in obedience who, through their father’s direction, became filled with compunction, meek, temperate, zealous, free from inner conflicts, and fervent. But demons came to them and sowed in them the thought that they now had the qualifications for the solitary life, and that in solitude they would attain to freedom from passion as the final prize. Thus deceived, they left the harbour and put out to sea, but when a storm came down upon them they were pitifully exposed to danger from this foul and bitter ocean through being unprovided with pilots.

60. This sea is bound to be stirred up and roused and enraged, so as to cast out of it again on to the dry land the wood, and hay, and all the corruption that was brought down into it by the rivers of the passions. Let us watch nature and we shall find that after a storm at sea there comes a deep calm.

61. He who is sometimes obedient to his father and sometimes disobedient is like a person who sometimes puts lotion in his eyes and sometimes quicklime. For it is said, When one builds and an other pulls down, what profit have they had but the labour?

62. Do not be deceived, son and obedient servant of the Lord, by the spirit of conceit, so that you confess your own sins to your master as if they were another person’s. You cannot escape shame except by shame. It is often the habit of the demons to persuade us either not to confess, or to do so as if we were confessing another person’s sins, or to lay the blame for our sin on others. Lay bare, lay bare your wound to the physician and, without being ashamed, say: “It is my wound, Father, it is my plague, caused by my own negligence, and not by anything else. No one is to blame for this, no man, no spirit, no body, nothing but my own carelessness.”

63. At confession be like a condemned criminal in disposition and in outward appearance and in thought. Cast your eyes to the earth, and, if possible, sprinkle the feet of your judge and physician, as the feet of Christ, with your tears.

64. If everything depends on habit, and follows upon it, then still more do the virtues depend on habit, for they have God as their great collaborator.

65. You will not labour many years, son, in search of blessed inner peace, if in the beginning you surrender yourself with all your soul to indignities.

66. Do not think that it is improper to make your confession to your helper, as to God, in a prostrate position. I have seen condemned criminals, by their sorry appearance and violent confession and entreaty, soften the severity of the judge and change his anger into mercy. That is why even John the Baptist required confession before baptism of those who came to him, not because he himself needed to know their sins, but so as to effect their salvation.

67. Let us not be surprised if even after confession we are still attacked; for it is better to struggle with thoughts than with conceit.

68. Do not be over-eager and do not be carried away when you hear tales of the silent and hermit fathers. For you are marching in the army of the First Martyr. And if you fall, do not leave the practice-ground, for then especially more than ever we need a physician. He who strikes his foot against a stone when he has help, would certainly not only have stumbled unaided but would have died.

69. When we are brought down, then the demons quickly attack us, and seizing on a reasonable, or rather unreasonable pretext, they advise us to adopt the life of a solitary. The aim of our enemies is to inflict wounds upon us as we sin.

70. When a physician protests his incompetence, then you have to go to another, because few are healed without a physician. And who would think of contradicting us when we say that every ship that encounters shipwreck with a skilled pilot would be utterly lost without a pilot?

71. From obedience comes humility, and from humility comes dispassion; for the Lord remembered us in our humility and redeemed us from our enemies. Therefore nothing prevents us from saying that from obedience comes dispassion, through which the goal of humility is attained. For humility is the beginning of dispassion, as Moses is the beginning of the Law; and the daughter perfects the mother, as Mary perfects the Synagogue.

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