Tag Archive: discipline


The second degree of humility is, if anyone, not wedded to his own will, finds no pleasure in the compassing of his desires; but fulfils with his practice the word of our Lord: “I came not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” The Scripture also says: “Pleasure hath its penalty, but need winneth a crown.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Having introduced the logic of humility and then the first step—the fear of God—we now come to the second step: self-denial through spiritual practice. Continue reading

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The Art of Eternal Life

[Abba Isaac said:] “St. Antony … uttered this heavenly, inspired, saying on the end of prayer: ‘That prayer is not perfect in which the monk understands himself and the words which he is praying.'”

~ Conferences of Cassian, 9.31

In all our striving for the right method of spiritual progress, sayings like this one can be both comforting and conflicting. Continue reading

Bit by Bit

An old man said to a brother: “The devil is like a hostile neighbour and you are like a house. The enemy continually throws into you all the dirt that he can find. It is your business not to neglect to throw out whatever he throws in. If you neglect to do this, your house will be so full of mud that you will not be able to walk inside. From the moment he begins to throw, put it out again, bit by bit: and so by Christ’s grace your house shall remain clean.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 11.48

Who likes cleaning? Really. Possibly the only thing I dislike more than cleaning is being dirty. So I try to clean often when I can (and when I’m not overtaken by sloth). This old man uses this common chore to teach an important spiritual lesson: just as a house can only be cleaned “bit by bit,” so it is with our souls. Continue reading

Teachable Moments

An old man said: “If you fall ill, do not be a weakling. If the Lord God has willed that your body be feeble, who are you to bear it with grief? Does he not look after you in all you need? Surely you do not live without him. Be patient in your illness, and ask him to give you what is right—that is, that you may do his will, and abide in patience, and in charity eat what you have.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 7.45

It is easy, perhaps even justified, to dismiss a saying like this one as simply one of the less sensitive sayings of the fathers. However, I think a more charitable reading can be quite fruitful. The monk who said this wants those who ponder it to question their perspective on life, particularly suffering. Too often people presume that all suffering is a bad thing. This old man reminds us that even those who suffer have much to be thankful for, that all things happen in accord with God’s will, and that every moment of our lives is thus a teachable moment. Continue reading

It is through the Holy Spirit that there will be a universal resurrection. I do not mean the resurrection of the bodies at the end (Heb. 9:26), for then the angel will blow the trumpet and the dead bodies will rise (1 Cor. 15:52), but I mean the spiritual regeneration and resurrection of the dead souls that takes place in a spiritual manner every day. This [resurrection] He gives who has died once [for all] and risen (Rom. 6:9f.), and through all and for all those who live in a worthy manner He causes the souls to rise who have died with Him in will and faith and raises them up. This He grants through His all-holy Spirit as He even now bestows on them from henceforth the kingdom of heaven.

~ St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Example and Spirit of Symeon the Pious

Christ is risen! For Orthodox Christians like myself, Pascha (Easter) is more than just a day, it is also a forty day season. For the first week (this past one) we don’t even fast at all! Having just finished with this Renewal Week (or Bright Week), I have been reflecting on a common motif of the Christian spiritual life and how perfectly it describes Christian asceticism: dying and rising with Christ. Continue reading

The Angelic Life

John the Less of the Thebaid, a disciple of Abba Ammonius, was said to have lived for twelve years ministering to an old man who was ill, and sitting on a mat near him. But the old man was always cross with him; and although John worked a long time for him, he never said: “May it be well with you.” But when the old man was on his death-bed, in the presence of the elders of that place, he held John’s hand and said: “May it be well with you, may it be well with you.” And the old man commended John to the old men, saying: “This is an angel, not a man.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 16.4

John the Less (not to be confused with John the Short) lived, according to this story, “for twelve years ministering to an old man who was ill.” And yet, not once did he hear from the old man, “May it be well with you.” I think that there are many in John’s situation in the world today—serving others thanklessly for years and years. Yet how many of us have eyes to see: “This is an angel, not a man [or woman].” How many of them know what saints they are? Continue reading

There was a story that some philosophers once came to test the monks. One of the monks came by dressed in a fine robe. The philosophers said to him: “Come here, you.” But he was indignant, and insulted them. Then another monk came by, a good person, a Libyan by race. They said to him: “Come here, you wicked old monk.” He came to them at once, and they began to hit him: but he turned the other cheek to them. Then the philosophers rose and did homage to him, saying: “Here is a monk indeed.” And they made him sit down in their midst, and asked him: “What do you do in this desert more than we do? You fast: and we fast also. You chastise your bodies and so do we. Whatever you do, we do the same.” The old man answered: “We trust in God’s grace, and keep watch on our minds.” They said: “That is what we cannot do.” And they were edified, and let him go.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 16.16

I have always liked this story. It’s message is pretty straight-forward, but I will record here a few observations. Continue reading

The Bondage of the Will

800px-Noe_fettersOn another occasion also St. Columba prophesied in the following manner of Cormac, grandson of Lethan, a truly pious man, who not less than three times went in search of a desert in the ocean, but did not find it. “In his desire to find a desert, Cormac is this day, for the second time, now embarking from that district which lies at the other side of the river Moda (the Moy, in Sligo), and is called Eirros, Domno (Erris, in Mayo); nor even this time shall he find what he seeks, and that for no other fault than that he has irregularly allowed to accompany him in the voyage a monk who is going away from his own proper abbot without obtaining his consent.”

~ St. Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba 6

While I know I’m supposed to be continuing my Lenten journey with St. Patrick, as the spiritual father of all the Irish, one cannot escape his spirit in the saints who rose up after him and continued his missionary efforts. In the case of this story, we have St. Columcille again (i.e. St. Columba) and St. Cormac. There are two themes in this story that caught my attention, both of which also reach back beyond St. Patrick to the desert fathers who figure so prominently on this blog: the desert and obedience. Continue reading

On another day; also, while St. Columba was engaged in his mother-church, he suddenly cried out, with a smile, “Columbanus, the son of Beogna, has just now set out on a voyage to us, and is in great danger in the rolling tides of Brecan’s whirlpool: he is sitting at the prow and raising both his hands to heaven: he is also blessing that angry and dreadful sea: yet in this the Lord only frightens him, for the ship in which he is shall not be wrecked in the storm; but this is rather to excite him to pray more fervently, that by God’s favour he may escape the danger of his voyage, and reach us in safety.”

~ St. Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba 5

St. Columcille of Iona (or St. Columba, as his name was Latinized) is one of my favorite saints. I’m not sure if the Columbanus (or Columbán) in this story is the St. Columbanus, but if so this would be quite the meeting of two Celtic saints.

In any case, however, this story is not about their meeting, but rather the journey of this Columbanus along the way. While sailing to meet St. Columcille, he suddenly encounters “great danger in the rolling tides of Brecan’s whirlpool.” Yet, according to St. Adamnan our narrator, St. Columcille is certain that his ship “shall not be wrecked in the storm; but this is rather to excite him to pray more fervently, that by God’s favour he may escape the danger of his voyage, and reach us in safety.” Continue reading

The Way of Contradiction

When a certain brother in Scete was going to the harvest, he went to Abba Moses, the Black, and said unto him, “Father, tell me what I shall do; shall I go to the harvest?” and Abba Moses said unto him, “If I tell thee, wilt thou be persuaded to do as I say?” And the brother said unto him, “Yea, I will hearken unto thee.” The old man said unto him, “If thou wilt be persuaded by me, rise up, go, and release thyself from going to the harvest, and come unto me, and I will tell thee what thou shalt do.” The brother therefore departed and obtained his release from his companions, as the old man had told him, and then he came to him. And the old man said unto him, “Go into thy cell and keep Pentecost, and thou shalt eat dry bread and salt once a day [only], and after thou hast done this I will tell thee something else to do later on”; and he went and did as the old man had told him, and then came to him again.

Now when the old man saw that he was one who worked with his hands, he shewed him the proper way to live in his cell; and the brother went to his cell, and fell on his face upon the ground, and for three whole days and nights he wept before God. And after these things, when his thoughts were saying unto him, “Thou art now an exalted person, and thou hast become a great man,” he used to contradict them, and set before his eyes his former shortcomings, [and say], “Thus were all thine offences.” And again, when they used to say to him, “Thou hast performed many things negligently,” he would say, “Nevertheless I do small services for God, and He sheweth His mercy upon me.” And when by such means as these the spirits had been overcome, they appeared unto him in the form of corporeal creatures, and said unto him, “We have been vanquished by thee”; and he said unto them, “Why?” and they said to him, “If we humble thee, we are raised up by thee to an exalted position, and if we exalt thee we are accounted by thee for humility.”

~ Paradise of the Fathers 1.18

There is a lot going on in this story, but I will skip to the end. After keeping Pentecost, fasting in solitude for some period of time, being instructed by Abba Moses regarding how to work in his cell, and weeping before God for three days and nights, the brother in this story engages in a particularly enlightening practice of watchfulness. Continue reading