WEDNESDAY OF THE FIRST WEEK
OF THE GREAT LENT
On Blessed and Ever-Memorable Obedience.
1. Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ. As the flower precedes the fruit, so exile either of body or will always precedes obedience. For with the help of these two virtues, the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by contemplation and humility.
2. But let us not fail, if you agree, to describe clearly in our treatise the weapons of these brave warriors: how they hold the shield of faith in God and their trainer, and with it they ward off, so to speak, every thought of unbelief and vacillation; how they constantly raise the drawn sword of the Spirit and slay every wish of their own that approaches them; how, clad in the iron armour of meekness and patience, they avert every insult and injury and missile. And for a helmet of salvation they have their superior’s protection through prayer. And they do not stand with their feet together, for one is stretched out in service and the other is immovable in prayer.
3. Obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions. Or, conversely, obedience is the mortification of the limbs while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioning movement, voluntary death, simple life, carefree danger, spontaneous defence by God, fearlessness of death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s progress. Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility. A corpse does not argue or reason as to what is good or what seems to be bad. For he who has devoutly put the soul of the novice to death will answer for everything. Obedience is an abandonment of discernment in a wealth of discernment.
4. The beginning of the mortification both of the soul’s desire and of the bodily members involves much hard work. The middle sometimes means much hard work and is sometimes painless. But the end is insensibility and insusceptibility to toil and pain. Only when he sees himself doing his own will does this blessed living corpse feel sorry and sick at heart; and he fears the responsibility of using his own judgment.
5. You who have decided to strip for the arena of this spiritual confession, you who wish to take on your neck the yoke of Christ, you who are therefore trying to lay your own burden on Another’s shoulders, you who are hastening to sign a pledge that you are voluntarily surrendering yourself to slavery, and in return want freedom written to your account, you who are being supported by the hands of others as you swim across this great sea – you should know that you have decided to travel by a short but rough way, from which there is only one deflection, and it is called singularity. But he who has renounced this entirely, even in things that seem to be good and spiritual and pleasing to God, has reached the end before setting out on his journey. For obedience is distrust of oneself in everything, however good it may be, right up to the end of one’s life.
6. When motives of humility and real longing for salvation decide us to bend our neck and entrust ourselves to another in the Lord, before entering upon this life, if there is any vice and pride in us, we ought first to question and examine, and even, so to speak, test our helmsman, so as not to mistake the sailor for the pilot, a sick man for a doctor, a passionate for a dispassionate man, the sea for a harbour, and so bring about the speedy shipwreck of our soul. But when once we have entered the arena of religion and obedience we must no longer judge our good manager in any way at all, even though we may perhaps see in him some slight failings, since he is only human. Otherwise, by sitting in judgment we shall get no profit from our subjection.
7. It is absolutely indispensable for those of us who wish to retain undoubting faith in our superiors to write their good deeds indelibly in our hearts and constantly remember them, so that when the demons sow among us distrust towards them, we may be able to silence them by what is preserved in our memory. For the more faith flourishes in the heart, the more alacrity the body has in service. But he who has stumbled on distrust has already fallen; for all that does not spring from faith, is sin. The moment any thought of judging or condemning your superior occurs to you, leap away from it as from fornication. Whatever you do, give that snake no licence, no place, no entry, no power; but say to that serpent: “Listen, deceiver, I have no authority to judge of my superior, but he has been appointed to sit in judgment on me. It is not I who am to be his judge, but he is deputed to be mine.”
8. The Fathers have laid down that psalmody is a weapon, and prayer is a wall, and honest tears are a bath; but blessed obedience in their judgment is confession of faith, without which no one subject to passions will see the Lord.
9. He who submits himself, passes sentence on himself. If his obedience for the Lord’s sake is perfect, even if it does not seem perfect, he will escape judgment. But if he does his own will in some things, then although he considers himself obedient, he lays the burden on his own shoulders. It is good if the superior does not give up reproving him; but if he is silent, then I do not know what to say. Those who submit themselves in the Lord in simplicity run the good race without provoking the bile of the demons against themselves by their inquisitiveness.
10. First of all, let us make our confession to our good judge, and to him alone. But if he orders, then to all. Wounds displayed in public will not grow worse, but will be healed.
About a Robber Who Repented.
11. Terrible indeed was the judgment of a good judge and shepherd which I once saw in a monastery. For while I was there, it happened that a robber applied for admission to the monastic life. And that most excellent pastor and physician ordered him to take seven days of complete rest, just to see the kind of life in the place. When the week had passed, the pastor called him and asked him privately: “Would you like to live with us?” And when he saw that he agreed to this with all sincerity, he then asked him what evil he had done in the world. And when he saw that he readily confessed everything, he tried him still further, and said: “I want you to tell this in the presence of all the brethren.” But he really did hate his sin, and, scorning all shame, without the least hesitation he promised to do it. “And if you like,” he said, “I will tell it in the middle of the city of Alexandria.”
And so, the shepherd gathered all his sheep in the church, to the number of 230, and during Divine Service (for it was Sunday), after the reading of the Gospel, he introduced this irreproachable convict. He was dragged by several of the brethren, who gave him moderate blows. His hands were tied behind his back, he was dressed in a hair shirt, his head was sprinkled with ashes. All were astonished at the sight. And immediately a woeful cry rang out, for no one knew what was happening. Then, when the robber appeared at the doors of the church, that holy superior who had such love for souls, said to him in a loud voice: “Stop! You are not worthy to enter here.”
Dumbfounded by the voice of the shepherd coming from the sanctuary (for he thought, as he afterwards assured us with oaths, that he had heard not a human voice, but thunder), he instantly fell on his face, trembling and shaking all over with fear. As he lay on the ground and moistened the floor with his tears, this wonderful physician, using all means for his salvation, and wishing to give to all an example of saving and effectual humility, again exhorted him, in the presence of all, to tell in detail what he had done. And with terror he confessed one after another all his sins, which revolted every ear, not only sins of the flesh, natural and unnatural, with rational beings and with animals, but even poisoning, murder, and many other kinds which it is indecent to hear or commit to writing. And when he had finished his confession, the shepherd at once allowed him to be given the habit and numbered among the brethren.
12. Amazed by the wisdom of that holy man, I asked him when we were alone: “Why did you make such an extraordinary show?” That true physician replied: “For two reasons: firstly, in order to deliver the penitent himself from future shame by present shame; and it really did that, Brother John. For he did not rise from the floor until he was granted remission of all his sins. And do not doubt this, for one of the brethren who was there confided to me, saying: ‘I saw someone terrible holding a pen and writing tablet, and as the prostrate man told each sin, he crossed it out with a pen.’ And this is likely, for it says: I said, I will confess against myself my sin to the Lord; and Thou hast forgiven the wickedness of my heart. Secondly, because there are others in the brotherhood who have unconfessed sins, and I want to induce them to confess too, for without this no one will obtain forgiveness.”
13. I saw much else too that was admirable and worth remembering with that ever-memorable pastor and his flock. And a large part of it I shall try to bring to your knowledge also. For I stayed a considerable time with him, following their manner of life, and was greatly astonished to see how those earth-dwellers were imitating the heavenly beings.
14. In this flock they were united by the indissoluble bond of love; and what was still more wonderful, it was free from all familiarity and idle talk. More than anything else, they tried not to wound a brother’s conscience in any way. And if anyone ever showed hatred to another, the shepherd put him in the isolation monastery, like a convict. And once when one of the brethren spoke ill of his neighbour to the shepherd, the holy man at once ordered him to be driven out, saying: “I cannot allow a visible as well as an invisible devil in the monastery.”
15. I saw among these holy fathers things that were truly profitable and admirable. I saw a brotherhood gathered and united in the Lord, with a wonderful active and contemplative life. For they were so occupied with divine thoughts and they exercised themselves so much in good deeds that there was scarcely any need for the superior to remind them of anything, but of their own good will they aroused one another to divine vigilance. For they had certain holy and divine exercises that were defined, studied, and fixed. If in the absence of the superior one of them began to use abusive language or criticize people or simply talk idly, some other brother by a secret nod reminded him of this, and quietly put a stop to it. But if, by chance, the brother did not notice, then the one who reminded him would make a prostration and retire. And the incessant and ceaseless topic of their conversation (when it was necessary to say anything) was the remembrance of death and the thought of eternal judgment.
16. I must not omit to tell you about the extraordinary achievement of the baker of that community. Seeing that he had attained to constant recollection and tears during his service, I asked him to tell me how he came to be granted such a grace. And when I pressed him, he replied: “I have never thought that I was serving men but God. And having judged myself unworthy of all rest, by this visible fire I am unceasingly reminded of the future flame.”
17. Let us hear about another surprising attainment of theirs. For not even in the refectory did they stop mental activity, but according to a certain custom, these blessed men reminded one another of interior prayer by secret signs and gestures. And they did this not only in the refectory, but at every encounter and gathering.
18. And if one of them committed a fault, he would receive many requests from the brothers to allow them to take the case to the shepherd and bear the responsibility and the punishment. That is why this great man, on learning that his disciples did this, inflicted lighter punishments, knowing that the one punished was innocent. And he did not even inquire who had actually fallen into the blunder.
19. Could any hint of idle talk and joking exist among them? If one of them began a dispute with his neighbour, then another, passing by, assumed the role of penitent and so dissolved the anger. But if he noticed that the disputants were spiteful or revengeful, he would report the quarrel to the father occupying the second place after the superior, and prepare the ground for their mutual reconciliation before sundown. But if they continued obstinate, they would either be punished by being deprived of food until they were reconciled, or else be expelled from the monastery.
20. And it is not in vain that this laudable rigour is brought to perfection among them, for it bears and shows abundant fruit. And among these holy fathers many become proficient both in active life and spiritual insight, both in discernment and humility. And there was to be seen among them an awful and angelic sight: venerable and white-haired elders of holy beauty running about in obedience like children and taking a great delight in their humiliation. There I have seen men who had spent some fifty years in obedience. And when I asked them to tell me what consolation they had gained from so great a labour, some of them replied that they had attained to deep humility with which they had permanently repelled every assault. Others said that they had obtained complete insensibility and freedom from pain in calumnies and insults.
21. I have seen others of those ever-memorable fathers with their angelic white hair attain to the deepest innocence and to wise simplicity, spontaneous and God-guided. (Just as an evil man is somewhat double, one thing outwardly and another inwardly, so a simple person is not something double, but something of a unity.) Among them there are none who are fatuous and foolish, like old men in the world who are commonly called “in their dotage.” On the contrary, outwardly they are utterly gentle and kindly, radiant and sincere, and they have nothing hypocritical, affected or false about them either in speech or character (a thing not found in many); and inwardly, in their soul, like innocent babes, they make God Himself and their superior their very breath, and the eye of their mind keeps a bold and strict watch for demons and passions.
22. The whole of my life, dear and reverend father and God-loving community, would be insufficient to describe the heavenly life and virtue of those blessed monks. But yet it is better to adorn our treatise and rouse you to zeal in the love of God by their most laborious struggles than by my own paltry counsels; for beyond all dispute the inferior is adorned by the superior. Only this I ask, that you should not imagine that we are inventing what we write, for such a suspicion would detract from its value. But let us continue again what we were saying before.