Sunday, October 11, 2015

Keeping our soul clean ( Abba Dorotheos )

Penetrate mentally, O brethren, into the nature of things, and beware lest you be negligent, for even a small negligence subjects us to great dangers. I went not long ago to one brother, and finding him completely worn out from illness, I conversed with him and learned that he had been in a fever for only seven days, but then another forty days had passed and he still had not recovered his strength. So you see, O brethren, how a man suffers when he falls into a condition which is not natural to him. Another may never take care of his body's minor disorders, not realizing that if his body were to suffer even a slight illness, especially if he is weak, much time and labor will be needed for him to completely recover. This humble monk was sick for seven days, and see how many days passed and he still finds no comfort and cannot regain his strength.

Thus it happens also with the soul: one person sins a little, but what a great amount of time he later spends shedding his blood to correct himself! However, physical ailments are prolonged for many reasons—either the physician is unskilled and gives one medicine when he should have given another, or the patient does not conduct himself properly and does not follow the prescriptions of the physician. But with regard to the soul it is different. We cannot call the physician unskilled, and say that he does not give the right medicine. For the physician of souls is Christ, Who knows everything and gives a fitting treatment for every passion. Against vainglory He has given the commandment of the humility of wisdom, against love of pleasure the commandment of continence, against love of silver the commandment of almsgiving, and in short, every passion has as its treatment a corresponding commandment, so that no one can say that the physician is unskilled, or that the medicines are old and therefore ineffective; for the commandments of Christ never grow old—to the contrary, the more they are fulfilled, the more they renew themselves. Therefore nothing hinders the health of the soul but its own lawlessness.

And so let us pay heed to ourselves O brethren, let us labor while we have time. Why do we not take a care for ourselves? Let us do at least something good so as to find help in the time of temptation! Why do we ruin our own lives? We hear so much, yet we do not take a care for ourselves, and we disdain everything. We see how our brethren are taken from our midst, yet we do not pay heed to ourselves, although we know that we too draw ever nearer to death. See, from the time we have sat down to converse up till now, we have passed two to three hours of our lives and have drawn closer to death, and although we see that we are losing time, we have no fear. How is it that we do not remember the words of the elder who said, "If someone looses gold or silver he can find some other to replace it; but if we lose time by living in idleness and sloth, we will not be able to find any other time in place of what was lost—verily we will seek even a single hour of this time and will not find it. How many men are there who desire to hear the word of God but do not receive what they desire, and we hear so much yet disdain it, and do not wake up! God knows, I am astonished at the insensitivity of our souls—that we could be saved yet we do not want to be. For we could cut off our passions while they are still young, but we do not concern ourselves with this, and allow them to gain strength against us so that we might come to a worse end. For it is one thing, as I have many times said to you, to uproot a small blade of grass, because it is easily pulled out; but it is another thing to uproot a great tree.

One great elder was walking with his disciple in a certain place where there were several cypresses, great and small. The elder told one of his disciples, "Uproot this cypress. The cypress was small, and the brother immediately pulled it out with one hand. Then the elder pointed to a second which was larger than the first and said, "Uproot this one too." The brother pulled it this way and that with both hands and finally pulled it out. Again the elder showed him yet a larger tree, and with great labor he uprooted that one also. Then he showed him a yet larger one, the brother with the greatest labor at first pulled it back and forth, labored and sweated, and finally he pulled out this one also. Then the elder showed him one that was even larger, but although the brother labored sweated much over it, he still could not uproot it. When the elder saw that he did not have the strength to do this, he commanded another brother to stand and help him; and together they barely managed to uproot it. Then the elder said to the brethren, "And so it is with the passions, brethren; while they are small, if we want we can easily uproot them; but if we are negligent about them because they are insignificant, they will become strong, and the stronger they are the greater labor will be demanded of us. And when they become very strong in us, then even with great effort we will not be able to uproot them ourselves, without the aid of the saints who help us according to God."

Do you see how significant are the words of the early elders? The prophet teaches us this same thing, in the psalm, O daughter of Babylon, thou wretched one, blessed shall he be who shall reward thee wherewith thou hast rewarded us. Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock (Ps. 136:11,12). Let us examine what has been said in order. Babylon he calls joining or disturbance—this is what that word signifies, being derived from the word Babel, which means also Sichem. The daughter of Babylon signifies enmity; for the soul at first is disturbed and then gives birth to sin. He calls her wretched because, as I have told you before, evil has no existence in itself, but receives its existence from our negligence, and in turn is uprooted and destroyed by our striving for virtue. Then St. David speaks as it were to her, Blessed shall he be who shall reward thee wherewith thou has rewarded us. Let us see what we have given, what we have accepted and what we would like to give? We gave our will and received sin. This passage calls blessed those who give to her, and "to give" here means: no longer to perform sin. Then he adds, Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock; blessed is he who from the very beginning does not at all accept what is born of you, that is, evil thoughts, and gives them no room to grow in himself and bring evil into action; but swiftly, while they are still small and before they have grown strong and risen up against him, he takes them and crushes them against the rock, which is Christ (I Cor. 10:4), and destroys them, hastening to Christ. Behold how both the elders and the Holy Scripture are in agreement between themselves, and how they glorify those who labor to cut off their passions while they are still young, before experiencing the misfortune and bitterness they bring.

And so let us strive, O brethren, to receive mercy; let us labor a little and find great repose. The Fathers have told us how a man should gradually purify himself: every evening he should examine himself as to how he spent the day, and again in the morning how he spent the night, and repent before God for however he may have sinned. In truth, since we sin much, we need, because of our forgetfulness, to examine ourselves even after the passing of six hours as to how we spent the time and in what we have sinned. And each one of us should say to himself, "Did I not say something which angered my brother? When I saw him occupied with some work did I not judge him? Did I not belittle him and speak evil against him? Did I not ask something from the cellarer, and when he did not give it to me, did I not judge him and murmur against him? If the food was not good did I not say something about it? Or being embittered, did I not murmur against my own self?" For if someone should murmur even against himself, this is a sin. We should likewise say to ourselves, "Did the canonarch or some other brother say some unpleasant word to me and I did not endure it but talked back to him?" In this way we should daily probe ourselves as to how we spent the day. And in the same way each one should test himself how he spent the night: Did he arise with fervor for the Vigil? Or did he murmur against the one who woke him up? Or was he fainthearted against him? We should know that the one who awakens us for the Vigil show us a great benefaction and is for us the cause of great good things, for he awakens us in order that we might converse with God, pray for our sins, be enlightened and receive benefit of soul. How should we not give thanks to such a benefactor? In truth we should revere him just as if through him we receive salvation.

I will relate to you something miraculous which I heard concerning a great and clairvoyant elder. Standing in the church he saw that when the brethren began the psalmody, a certain light-bearing being came out of the altar, bearing what appeared to be a little case with myrrh and a brush. He moistened the brush in the case and went about all the brethren, placing a sign on each of them and on the places of certain of those who were absent, but he passed by the places of other ones who were absent. Toward the end of the divine service, they again saw that he came out of the altar and did the same thing. Once the elder stopped him and fell to his feet, entreating him to explain to him what he was doing and who he was. That light-bearing man replied to him, "I am an angel of God, and it has been commanded me to seal with this sign those who come to church at the beginning of the psalmody and remain to the end of it, for their zeal, striving, and good will." The elder asked him, "But why do you make the sign on the places of certain of those who are absent?" In reply to this the Holy Angel said to him, "Those of the brethren who are zealous and have a good will have left church because of extreme exhaustion, with the blessing of the fathers, or likewise by some command, being occupied with their obedience and therefore they are not here, so that although they are not in church, they still receive their blessing, for by their good will they are present together with those who sing. Only to those who could be in church and do not come out of laziness it is commanded not to give the sign, inasmuch as these make themselves unworthy of it." Do you see what gifts the brother who awakens you for the church rule is the cause of? Strive then O brethren never to be deprived of the sign of the holy angel; if it happens sometime that you be lazy and that others should remind you of this, you should not be indignant, but, having in view the benefit of such a reminder, you should give thanks to the one who reminds, whoever he might be.

When I was living in coenobitism, the Abbot, at the advice of the elders, made me the receiver of visitors, while not long before this I had had a severe illness. And thus it happened that visitors would come in the evening and I would spend the evening with them; then camel-drivers would come, and I would serve them; and often after I had gone to sleep, another need would arise, and they would wake me up, and meanwhile the hour of the Vigil would also be approaching. Hardly would I have fallen asleep when the canonarch would wake me up; but from labor or from illness I would be exhausted, and sleep would again take such possession of me that, weakened by fever, I would not remember myself and would answer through sleep: "Very well, my lord, may God remember your love and reward you; you have commanded, I will come, O lord." Then when he went out, I would again fall asleep and be very sad that I was late in going to church. And since the canonarch couldn't wait for me, I begged two brethren, one to wake me up, and the other not to let me doze at the Vigil; and believe me, brethren, I revered them as if through them my salvation was accomplished, and maintained toward them great piety. So you also should act with regard to those who rouse you to the church rule and to every good deed. Therefore each of us, as we have said, should test himself as to how he spent the day and night—did he stand with attention at psalmody and prayer, or was he distracted by passionate thoughts? Did he listen to the divine reading diligently, or, leaving the psalmody did he depart from church with his mind distracted? If one constantly tests himself in this way, he repents over his sins and strives to be corrected—then he will begin to lessen the evil within himself. And if he has made nine mistakes, he will in the future make only eight, and thus, advancing gradually with God's help, he will not allow the passions to grow strong in him. For it is a great misfortune for someone to fall into the habit of passion, because as we have said, although he might wish to repent, he will not be able to overcome the passion by himself if he does not receive help from the saints.

Would you like me to tell you about a certain brother for whom a passion was converted into a habit? Listen to something which deserves much lamentation. When I lived in the coenobium, the brethren in their simplicity, I think, confessed to me their thoughts, and the Abbot at the advice of the Elders commanded me to take this concern upon myself. Once there came to me one of the brothers who said to me, "Forgive me father and pray for me: I steal and eat." I asked him, "Why? Are you hungry?" He replied, "Yes, I do not get enough at the brothers' trapeza and I cannot ask." I told him, "Why don't you go and tell the Abbot?" He replied to me, "I am ashamed." I said to him again, "Do you wish me to go and tell him?" He said, "As it is pleasing to you, O master." And so I went and informed the Abbot of this. He said to me, "Show love and take care of him as you know how." Then I took him and said to the cellarer in his presence, "Show your love—when this brother will come to you give him as much as he wishes and do not refuse him in anything." Doing this the cellarer replied to me, "As you have ordered so will I fulfill it." Spending several days in this way the brother again came in and said to me, "Forgive me father, again I have begun to steal." I said to him, "But why? Doesn't the cellarer give you what you wish?" He replied to me, "Yes, forgive me, he gives me what I want, but I am ashamed before him." I said to him, "Are you ashamed also before me?" He replied, "No." Then I said to him, "Then whenever you wish come and take from me, but do not steal," for at that time I had the responsibility of being in the infirmary, and he came and took what he wished. But several days later he began again to steal, and he came with sorrow and told me, "Again I am stealing." I asked him, "Why my brother? Do I not give you what you want?" He replied, "Yes, you give me what I want." I said to him, "Then what is it, are you ashamed to take from me? He replied, "No." I said to him, "Then why do you steal?" He replied, "Forgive me, I myself do not know why; but I simply steal." Then I said to him, "At least tell me truthfully what you do with what you steal? He replied, "I give it to the donkey." And indeed it turned out that this brother stole pieces of bread, dates, figs, onions, and in general everything that he found, and hid it, some things under his bed, other things in different places, and finally not knowing where to use all this and seeing that it was spoiling, he brought it out and threw it away or gave it to the irrational creatures.

And so you see what it means to turn a passion into a habit? Do you see how pitiable this is, and what suffering it is? He knew that this was evil, he knew that he was doing wrong and he grieved and wept; however he was enticed, the poor wretch, by a bad habit which was formed in him because of his previous negligence. Abba Nisteroe has well said, "If someone is enticed by a passion he will be the slave of a passion." May the good God deliver us from evil habit, lest it be said to us, What profit is there in my blood when I go down into corruption? (Ps. 29:9). And how someone falls into a habit I have told to you many times. For a man who has become angry once is not necessarily called an angry man; one who has once fallen into fornication is not necessarily called a fornicator; and just because one has shown mercy to his neighbor on one occasion he is not necessarily called merciful. But just as with virtues so also with vices, from their frequent exercise the soul receives a certain habit, and then this habit either tortures the soul or give it repose. We have often repeated that virtue gives repose to the soul while vice tortures it, that is, virtue is natural, it is within us, for the seeds of virtues cannot be destroyed. And I have said that the more we do good, the more we acquire a habit for virtue, that is, we restore our natural characteristic to ourselves and ascend to our previous health, just as from having a cataract to our previous vision, or from some other ailments to our previous natural health. But it is not the same with regard to vice. Through exercise in vice we develop a tendency that is foreign and contrary to our nature, that is, we develop a tendency for a certain destructive infirmity, so that even if we want to be free of it we cannot without many prayers and tears which might incline Christ's mercy toward us. We note a similar thing in the body: there are certain kinds of food which by nature produce black bile, as for example cabbage, lentils, and certain other foods like these; but one becomes black-biled not because he once or twice eats cabbage or lentils or the like, but rather from eating them frequently. If the black bile should later increase in him, then fever occurs which torments him and brings other innumerable afflictions in its wake. The same thing happens with the soul: if one becomes hardened in sin, then an evil habit forms in the soul, and tortures it. However you should know also that the soul can have an attraction to certain passions, if it falls into committing this passion only once it immediately is in danger of falling also into a habit. The same thing happens also with the body: one man may have a disposition toward black bile from some previous negligence, so that a single one of the above-mentioned types of food can immediately produce black bile in him and cause a fever. And so one needs great attentiveness, effort and fear lest one fall into an evil habit.

Believe me brethren, if even one passion has become a habit in someone, he will deserve torment; it could happen that one might do ten good deeds but have one evil habit, and this one thing which proceeds from an evil habit supersedes his ten good deeds. If an eagle is caught in a net with one claw, even though the rest of him may be entirely outside the net, this small thing overcomes all his power. For is he not stuck in the net by that one claw even though he is otherwise entirely outside of it? Cannot the hunter seize him whenever he wishes? So also the soul: if even one passion turns into a habit, the enemy can overcome the soul whenever he wishes, for it is in his hands by reason of that passion. Therefore I also say to you constantly: do not allow any passion in you to become a habit, but labor and pray to God day and night so as not to fall into temptation. But if being human we should be conquered and fall into sin, let us then strive immediately to rise, let us repent over it, let us weep before God's goodness, let us keep vigil and struggle. And God, seeing our good will, humility, and contrition, will give us a hand of help and have mercy upon us. For to Him belongs all glory, honor and worship. Amen.

Abba Dorotheos