Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos
[An excerpt from "A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain"]
– I will mention to you some of the fruits of the Jesus prayer, since I can see you are very eager to learn. In the beginning the Jesus prayer is the bread which sustains the athlete, then it becomes oil which sweetens the heart and, in the end, it becomes wine which intoxicates man, that is, which creates ecstasy and union with God. To be more specific. The first gift which Christ gives to the man of prayer is the awareness of his sinfulness. He stops believing that he is "good" and considers himself "the desolating sacrilege... standing in the holy place" (Matt. 24. 15). Like the saw of a surgeon cutting through bone, the sharp word of the Spirit penetrates to the depths of the soul. There is so much impurity within us! Our soul reeks. Sometimes people come in my cell and they give a bad odor... from their inner filth. Well then, whatever was unknown before to the athlete, is now revealed to him through the Jesus prayer. As a result he considers himself below all people and thinks that Hell is his only eternal habitation and starts crying. He cries for his dead self. Is it possible for one to cry for the dead of his neighbour and not for the dead who is in his own house? In this way the athlete of the Jesus prayer, too, does not see the sins of others, but only his own death. His eyes become fountains of tears which flow from the affliction of his heart. He weeps like a condemned person, and at the same time he cries, "have mercy on me". "Have mercy on me". "Have mercy on me". With these tears, as we said above, the purification of soul and nous begins. As water cleanses dirty things, as the falling rain clears the sky of clouds and the earth from filth, likewise tears cleanse and whiten the soul. The tears are the water of the second baptism. Thus the Jesus prayer brings the sweetest fruit of purification.
– Is man completely purified when divine grace visits him?
– He is not purified completely, but is always seeking purity of heart for purification is a never ending effort. St. John Climacos reports this saying which he had heard from a monk, who had achieved dispassion. "The perfect but still unfinished perfection of the perfect". The more one weeps the more one is purified; the more one sees the deeper layers of sin the more he feels the need to weep again. St. Symeon the New Theologian elucidates this point well:
These by frequent prayer, by unutterable words
by the flow of their tears purifying their souls.
As they see their soul purified, they are set on fire with love, the fire of desire,
to see it perfectly pure.
But as they are powerless to find perfection of light the process is incomplete.
The more I am purified I, the sinner, am illumined,
the more He appears, the spirit who gives purity.
Each day, it seems I begin again to be made pure, to see.
In a fathomless abyss, in a measureless heaven,
who can find a middle or an end?
As you understand, my father, man is being continuously perfected and cleansed. The passive aspect of the soul is first cleansed and then the intelligent power of the soul. The faithful are initially delivered from the passions of the flesh; then –through harder prayer and more intensive struggle, from the passions of hatred, anger and rancour. When man manages to be freed from anger and rancour, it is obvious that the passive aspect of his soul has almost been purified. Then the entire warfare is carried out in the intelligent aspect, and the athlete wars against pride, vainglory and against all vain thoughts. This warfare will follow him to the end of his life. But all this course of purification takes place with the help and energy of grace, so that the faithful becomes a vessel receptive of rich divine grace. Again St. Symeon writes:
For man cannot overcome his passions
unless the light comes to our help.
Even so, it does not happen all at once.
Man by nature cannot receive all of a sudden, the spirit of God.
But much must be achieved, all of which is in his power.
Detachment of soul, despoiling of goods, separation from his own,
giving up his will, renouncing the world,
patience in temptations, prayer, sorrow,
poverty, humility, dispassion.
–And how does one understand that his soul is beginning to be purified?
–This is easy, the wise hermit answered. It becomes perceptible very soon. Hesychios the Elder uses a nice image. As the poisonous food which enters the stomach and causes disturbance and pain, comes out when we take medicine, and the stomach is relieved afterwards and feels the relief, the same happens with spiritual life. When man accepts evil thoughts and subsequently, experiences their bitterness and their heaviness, he "vomits easily and casts the evil thoughts out completely" through the Jesus prayer, attaining the sense therefore that purification is taking place. Moreover, the man of prayer becomes aware of purification, because the internal wounds that the passions cause cease bleeding. In the Gospel of the Evangelist Luke we read about the woman who had a flow of blood that: "she... came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased" (Lk. 8. 44). When one approaches Jesus Christ, he is immediately healed –"the flow of blood ceases": the blood of passions ceases to flow. I wish to say that images, circumstances, persons who used to scandalize us cease to now. In other words, when various persons or things disturb us, it is obvious that we are wounded by the attacks of the devil. It is within us that the scandal lies. Being purified through the help of the Jesus prayer, he sees all people and all things as creatures of God. He considers, especially human persons, as images of a God Who is full of love. Whoever, therefore, is dressed with the grace of Christ also sees the others dressed with such grace, even if they are naked. Whereas he who is destitude of divine grace, sees even those who are dressed as if they were naked! I would like at this point to read from the homilies of St. Symeon the New Theologian again.
–He is a Theologian, indeed. I read a few of his works and I was touched by them!
– I exhort you to read all his works because you will be able, in this way, to acquire a taste of mystical theology, of the apophatic way of ascetic experience. Well, the God–seeing father says:
The holy, pious Symeon the Studite
was not ashamed of seeing the body parts of any person
or of seeing naked people, neither was he ashamed of being seen naked;
for Christ was fully within him; the whole of him was Christ
and all of his members and everyone else's members
whether seen separately or all together he would always see as Christ;
and he would remain unmoved, unharmed and dispassioned,
for he was all Christ himself and saw all those
baptised as having put on Christ.
And if you are naked and being flesh, you touch flesh
and you become excited as a donkey or a horse,
how then do you dare calumniate the holy man
and you blaspheme against Christ who has been united with
us and has given dispassion to his holy servants?".
–As you can see, he went on, the dispassionate man, the one purified through the Jesus prayer, does not fall into temptation, whatever he might see. At the same time the devil is defeated; this is a fruit of the Jesus prayer. The athlete of the Jesus prayer recognises the enemy and his traps and easily casts him out of his soul. He also realises the devil's preparation for war and takes action just in time. He sees the arrows of the devil aimed at his soul, and before they even touch it, they are destroyed. St. Diadochos says that when the arrows reach the surface part of the heart, they are destroyed there, because the grace of Christ is within. Furthermore, as we were saying before, the integration of the complete person is achieved. Mind, desire and will are united and combined in God.
– Purification and dispassion are great gifts!!! I exclaimed.
–Yes, indeed, dispassion is a gift of grace. Dispassion presupposes purification and love and even more it covers love. St. Symeon can help us even at this point. He uses an effective image. On a cloudless night we see the moon in the sky filled with the most pure light and many times a shining circle around it. This is how St. Symeon adjusts this image to the purified and dispassioned man. The bodies of the Saints are the sky. Their God–bearing heart is like the moon. Holy love is the "almighty and all–accomplishing light", which fills the heart each day, according to its degree of purification, and then a time comes when the heart is full of this bright light and becomes like a full–moon. But this light does not diminish, as the moon’s light does, because it is preserved with good works. "It remains always bright through the zeal and the good works of the Saints". Dispassion is the circle which surrounds the all–shining heart, covers it, and maintains it invulnerable from the furious assaults of the devil. "It shields it from every side and guards it and maintains it invincible from every evil thought and establishes it unharmed and free from all enemies; not only this but also it makes it unapproachable by the adversaries".
Although dispassion is absolutely necessary, it is not the final gift of the Jesus prayer and the acquisition of everything. From then on the ascent to God starts. The Holy Fathers describe this spiritual ascent to divinization in three words: Purification, illumination, perfection. I'll mention to you two examples from the Holy Scripture to make it more comprehensible: the ascent of Moses on Mount Sinai to obtain the "Law" and the march of the people of Israel to the promised land. The first is described by St. Gregory of Nyssa and the second by St. Maximos.
–The Fathers always inspire me. They interpret the word of God correctly, that is why I like to hear the interpretations of the Fathers.
–The Hebrews washed their garments first and cleansed themselves according to the commandment of God: "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready by the third day". Then on the third day, all the people heard voices and "a very loud trumpet blast" and saw thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mountain. "And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke". The people walked to the foot of the mountain; only Moses went into the shining cloud and reached the top of the mountain, where he received the tablets of the Law (Ex. 19. 10–18). St. Gregory of Nyssa understands that the way to divine knowledge is purity of body and soul. He who is going to ascend must be, as far as it is possible, pure and spotless, both in body and soul. He must also, according to the divine commandment, wash his garments –not so much the material ones, because they do not become an obstacle for those who want to be deified– but rather the deeds of this life which enwrap us like a garment. He must also distance himself from the "irrational beasts", e.g. he must overcome every knowledge which is obtained through the senses. He must be cleansed from every aesthetic and irrational action he must purify his mind and be separated even from his own familiar companion –his sense– and being prepared in this way, let him dare to approach the mountain with the thick cloud upon it. Yet, since the mountain is inaccessible to the people, let only Moses –that is he who has been called by God ascend– proceed. Therefore, father, as it is seen here, purification precedes and the ascent to divine vision follows. The greater gifts, then, are obtained after purification, which is a prerequisite for their acquisition.
Let me remind you, the God–seeing ascetic continued, of the second example. St. Maximos the Confessor writes that there are three stages for the mystical ascent to God: practical philosophy which is both negative (purification from passions) and positive (acquisition of virtues); the natural theoria–vision when the purified nous contemplates all creation (that is the inner essences of created beings) comprehends the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures, and sees God in nature and prays to Him. Then the third and last stage follows: the mystical theology, which unites God with the militant, the faithful one. These three stages can be seen clearly in the route of the people of Israel. They were first liberated from the slavery of Egypt, and crossed the Red Sea where Egyptian power was defeated. Then they came to the wilderness, where they received the gifts of divine love manifested in various ways (the manna, the water, the bright cloud, the Law, the victory against enemies), and they entered the promised land after many years of struggle. In the same way, the athlete of the "Jesus prayer" is first delivered from the slavery of passions (practical philosophy), he enters then the desert of dispassion (natural theoria–vision), where he receives the gifts of the love of God. And finally, he becomes worthy of the promised land (mystical theology) after a heroic struggle; he becomes worthy of perfect union with God and the enjoyment of eternity, which is experienced in the vision of the uncreated Light. These three stages, however, are not clearcut, according to the God–bearing Fathers. When we reach natural theoria–vision and mystical theology, it does not mean that we give up ascesis and compunction of the heart, i.e. practical philosophy. Rather the more a person progresses spiritually, the more he struggles so that he will not lose the mercy that he received. The Fathers advise us that when we become worthy of divine and lofty visions, we should then be more diligent in our expression of love and continence, "so that by keeping undisturbed the passive aspect of the soul, you will experience the unfailing light of the soul". It is necessary that man should always proceed on his spiritual path in fear. In the beginning, he should have the fear of Hell, of punishment (preliminary fear) and then the fear, lest he loses grace and falls from it (perfect fear). "Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling", the Apostle Paul says (Phil. 2. 12).
– Tell me now, Gerondas, what are the gifts that the athlete of the "Jesus prayer" receives after purification and before he enjoys perfect union with God? Go on describing to me the other fruits of the Jesus prayer.
–The monk who does violence to himself feels divine consolation. He feels the presence of Christ, which spreads "sweet calmness", unperturbed peace, profound humility, and insatiable love for all. The consolation of divine presence cannot be compared with anything human. I met an ascetic who became seriously ill and went to the hospital for treatment. The best of doctors were by his side as they respected him and wanted to comfort him. He recovered, of course, thanked the doctors and returned to his little cell. After a brief period of time, however, he experienced a relapse which the brothers did not realise, because he was isolated. He suffered much, yet he was feeling such comfort from God, which could not be compared with the sincere and loving care of the doctors or with the efficacious action of the medications. The rest he felt was without precedent. That is why some hermits (this is incomprehensible to those of the world) avoid diligently human consolation in order to feel the intoxicating sweetness and the insatiable joy of divine consolation...
–That is a wonderful fruit of noetic prayer, I said. Go on, father.
–Man acquires grace in the sufferings that his fellow–men cause him. He flies to the azure and glorious sky of spiritual life, where the arrows of men of the world cannot reach him. Not only is he not afflicted, but neither does he not notice them. As an aeroplane cannot be brought down nor hit when stones are thrown at it the same happens with such a man. There is no grief because of slander, persecution, contempt, accusation etc., but there is only grief for the fall of a brother. But even if he grieves for something, he knows the way to cast it out. Such an example is told in the "Sayings of the Desert Fathers": "An old man who came to see Abba Achiles found him spitting blood out of his mouth. He asked him, "What is the matter, Father?" The old man answered, "The word of a brother grieved me, I struggled not to tell him so and I prayed God to rid me of this word. So it became like blood in my mouth and I have spat it out. Now I am in peace, having forgotten the matter"9.
–This means, indeed, perfect love for the brother, which forgives everything. He does not even want to recall them. We are already reaching perfection!
–Certainly. And this is achieved through the Jesus prayer. This love is the result of the experience of the unity of all mankind. And this is a wonderful fruit of the Jesus prayer. Not only man himself is integrated, but also the unity of mankind is felt.
You know, father, the hermit continued, that the unity of human nature was divided immediately after the Fall of Adam. After the creation of Adam, God created Eve from his side. Eve's creation gave joy to Adam and he felt her as his own (from his body) and so he said: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh... " (Gen. 2. 23). After his fall –when God asked him– Adam said: "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate" (Gen. 3 . 12). Before the Fall, Eve was "bone" from his bones after the Fall she became "the woman" that God gave him! It is obvious here the division of human nature after sin, as it can be seen later in the children of Adam, in all the history of Israel and in all the history of humanity. This is natural. Since man was estranged from God, he was also estranged from himself and separated from other people. This constituted complete alienation and enslavement. The reunion of human nature was attained "in Christ". He "stretched out his palms and united what was before divided" and so he gave the power to each one of us, after being united with him, to experience the unity of human nature.
The ascetic, then, aquires great love for Jesus Christ through the Jesus prayer, and he is joined with Him through this love. It is natural, therefore, for him to love whatever God loves and desire whatever He desires. God "desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tit. 2. 4). This is what the athlete of prayer wants. He is shaken by the evil that exists in the world and grieves deeply for the loss and the ignorance of his brothers. Since sin always has ecclesiastical and cosmic dimensions and affects the entire world, it is natural that he who prays experiences all the tragedy of humanity and suffers deeply for her. He lives the agony of the Lord in Gethsemane. He reaches a point, therefore, where he ceases praying for himself and prays continually for others, to come to the knowledge of God. His purification from passions, his acquisition of the life–giving divine grace, and prayer for others –which is the result of his experiencing the unity of mankind in Jesus Christ– is the greatest mission. This is how the Fathers saw the missionary effort: as a striving for the renewal of the human being and a reintegration of nature. Each person who is purified becomes a valuable part of society, as we are all members of the blessed body of Christ. We can see this vividly in the person of the Most Holy Mother of God. She was "full of grace", and then bestowed grace and adorned all of human nature. Purified and "full of grace", she prays for the whole world. And thus we can say that the Most Holy Mother of God performs the greatest mission of all and benefits all of mankind effectively.
He kept silent for a while and then went on.
–Still the ascetic feels the unity of all nature.
– What do you mean?
–He is acknowledged by all nature. Before the Fall, Adam was the King of all creation, and all the animals acknowledged him as a King. After the Fall, however, this link was broken and this acknowledgement abolished. Nikolaos Kavasilas analyses this condition vividly. Man, he says, is created in the image of God. In Adam the image of God was the clear mirror through which the Light of God reflects on nature. As long as the mirror remained unbroken, all nature was lit up. However, as soon as it was broken and smashed, deep darkness fell on all creation. All nature, then, rebelled against man and now does not acknowledge him, neither does it want to give him its fruits. Thus, man is sustained with anguish and labour. The animals are also afraid of him and are quite aggressive. Yet, when man receives the grace of Christ, all the powers of the soul integrate. He is in the image and likeness of God. He becomes a mirror, a light which shines forth the divine grace even to irrational nature. Now the animals acknowledge him, obey him and respect him. There are many cases recorded where the ascetic–hermit lives in the company of bears and wild animals. He feeds them, and they in turn serve him, thus acquiring divine grace through the Jesus prayer, he becomes, again, King of nature, and evenmore, he ascends to a more elevated state than Adam's. Ac cording to the Fathers, Adam was in the image of God but he had to reach to the likeness of God through obedience. He was in the stage of the illumination of the nous and he had to attain to theosis. Whereas the ascetic attains to "the likeness of God" (divinization), as far as it is possible, through divine grace, without entering, however, into the Divine Essence. He partakes of the uncreated energies of God. I shall give you an example of this acknowledgement on the part of nature from this very present interview. When my ever memorable Gerondas was saying the Jesus prayer, wild birds would come to the windows of his cell pecking the panes. One would think that this was the activity of the devil to hinder him from prayer. But, in fact, the wild birds were attracted by the prayer of the Gerondas!!!
–Gerondas, you have led me through the stages of perfection; to the end of spiritual life. Man is capable of becoming a King...
He smiled faintly.
–There are even higher stages. After a great struggle, as I mentioned before, it is possible for the athlete to submit to ecstasy, the divine rapture, and enter the new Jerusalem, the new promised land. The nous is seized in rapture, and contemplates the uncreated Light. At vespers of the divine Transfiguration we sing: "When the chosen apostles beheld upon the mountain the overwhelming flood of Thy light, "Christ who has no beginning, and Thy divinity which no man may approach, they were caught up into a divine trance". Ecstasy and theoria (vision) of God are connected. When we say ecstasy, we do not mean something static, but we refer to divine presence and spiritual movement. It is not inactivity and death but life in God. The Fathers say that when man is enraptured in the divine Light, during the Jesus prayer, he ceases praying with the lips. The mouth and tongue remain silent, the heart is silent, too. The athlete, then, delights in the theoria (vision) of Taborian Light. He receives the uncreated energy of God. It is the same Light of Mount Tabor, which the disciples saw; it is the Kingdom of God –eternity. According to St. Gregory Palamas, the Light is "the beauty of the age to come", "the substance of future good", "the most perfect vision of God", "the heavenly food". Those who become worthy of seeing the uncreated Light are the Prophets of the New Testament. For, as the Prophets of the Old Testament would surpass time and could see the incarnation of Christ, the first advent, in the same way those who contemplate the Light surpass time and see the glory of Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven.
He was silent for a while, took a deep breath and went on.
–The divine Light possesses all of his being. Even his hut shines from the presence of Christ and he enjoys this "sober drunkenness". He beholds the invisible God. "God is Light and his vision is Light", says St. Symeon the New Theologian. The monk sees divine Light at that moment, and this is "a pleasing and sacred vision", according to "the defendor of theologians", St. Gregory Palamas. Makarios the Chrysokephalos also describes this vision: "What is more beautiful than being in intimate communion with Christ? What is dearer than his divine glory? Nothing is sweeter than this light, through which every illuminating order of angels as well as of men is made lucid; nothing is more loving than this life, wherein we all live and move and have our being; nothing is sweeter than ever–incarnate beauty; nothing is more delightful than the everlasting joy; nothing is dearer than eternal gladness, dignified majesty and boundless Bliss". In other words, delight and joy are boundless. These states are indeed too great for words. This is how St. Symeon the New Theologian describes it.
He took one of his books in his hands and started reading.
"I sit on my bed, free of this world
and within of my hut I can see present
before me, Him who is out of the world, I see Him
and talk to Him; and I dare say I love Him and He loves me,
I eat and I am fed well only with the vision;
and being united with Him I go beyond Heaven
and I know that this is true and certain;
and where my body is therefore I do not Know.
I know that He Who is immovable descends
I know that He Who is invisible appears to me
I know that He Who is separated from all creation
receives me within Himself, and hides me in His arms
and then I am thus out of the world
and I, mortal and small in the world,
I can see the creator of the world within myself
and I know that I will not die, because I have eternal life,
and because all of life is poured forth within me".
The Gerondas read the passage with great longing. His voice was moving. His eyes sparkled. His face was shining with an inexplicable joy. His trembling voice –his spiritual delight brought tears to my eyes.
–Thus even his face shines, he went on, from the divine presence. He enters, like Moses, into the divine darkness of unknowing, into the "radiant darkness", and acquires "enduring knowledge" and "ineffable theology".
He stopped again for a while. I was waiting almost ecstatic, literally gasping.
– Even the body feels the sweetness of this Light and during these moments it undergoes "change".
–What does this mean?
– "That the body participates in the grace which acts 113 on the nous, is orientated to it and receives awareness of the ineffable mystery of the soul" (St. Gregory Palamas). Then the body "becomes strangely buoyant and glowing", that is, it feels an unusual warmth which is the result of the vision of Light. It is like the candle which when it is lit up, its main body (the wax) is at once warm and luminous.
–Please, allow me a question. It may be blasphemous but I will ask it anyway. Is this "change" of the body a reality or imaginary? Is it an imagined warmth?
–No, my father it is not. This "change" is real. The body participates in all the states of the soul. The body itself is not bad, but rather the mind of the flesh, that is, when the body is enslaved to the devil. Besides, the vision of the Light is a vision of the physical eyes which have been altered and strengthened by the Holy Spirit and have become capable of seeing the uncreated Light. There are many examples in the Holy Scripture which indicate that the grace of God, through the soul, penetrates to the body as well, which feels the action of the life–giving divine grace.
–Could you refer to some of these?
–There are many verses in the psalms of David, which show this: "My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God" (Ps. 84). "In Him my heart trusts; so I am helped and my heart exults" (Ps. 27). Also in the 119th Psalm: "How sweet are thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth"! We have the story of Moses, too. When he came down from Mt. Sinai with the ten commandments, his face shone. "When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, he did not know that the skin on his face shone because he had been talking with God. And when Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him" (Ex. 34. 29–30). This is also seen in the case of archdeacon Stephen: "And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel" (Acts 6. 15). St. Gregory Palamas believes that the sweat of our Lord Jesus Christ, while praying in the garden of Gethsemane, shows "the fervour felt in His body because of the intensive prayer to God".
–Forgive me, father, because I've tired you with my blasphemous and worldly question. We, people of the world, cannot understand... Allow me, however, one more question. Are there monks nowadays, who see the uncreated Light and undergo "change" when they pray?
He smiled and said:
–If the Holy Spirit should cease acting in the Church, then "the beholders of the uncreated Light", will cease to exist. The Holy Mountain hides great treasures and those who fight against it in any way, are accusers and enemies of God. In the time of St. Athanasios the Great some disputed the Deity of Christ. In the time of St. Gregory Palamas they disputed the deity of the uncreated energies. Nowadays, we fall into almost the same sin. We dispute the existence of deified people, who see the divine Light. Today, there are sanctified monks –Gods by grace. The continuation of life on earth is due to these deified ascetics. They brighten our world, which is darkened by sin.