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Nikiphoros the Monk: From the Life of Our Holy Father Antony

Once two brothers were on their way to visit St Antony, but on the journey their water gave out and one of them died and the other was near to dying. Unable to go any further, he too lay down on the ground and awaited death. But Antony, seated on the mountain, called two monks who happened to be with him and said to them urgently, 'Take a jar of water and go as fast as you can along the road leading to Egypt: two men were on their way here, but one has just died and the other will also die if you don't hurry. This was revealed to me as I was praying.' The monks set off; and finding the one man dead they buried him, while they revived the other with water and brought him to the elder. It was about a day's journey off. Should you ask why Antony did not speak before the first man died, I would say that the question is inapt: the decision about death rested not with Antony but with God, and He allowed the first man to die and sent a revelation to St Antony about the second. The miracle happened to St Antony, and to him alone, because while seated on the mountain he kept his heart watchful, and so the Lord showed him what was happening a long way off

Do you see how through watchfulness of heart St Antony was able to perceive God and to acquire the power of clairvoyance? For it is in the heart that God manifests Himself to the intellect, first - according to St John Klmiakos - as fire that purifies the lover and then as light that illumines the intellect and renders it godlike.

From the Life of St Theodosios the Cenobiarch

St Theodosios was so deeply wounded by the sweet arrow of love, and was held so fast in love's fetters, that he fulfilled in actual practice the exalted commandment, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind' (Matt. 22:37). Such a state can be attained only by so concentrating the soul's natural powers that they aspire to nothing other than the Creator alone. So great were these spiritual energies in his soul that when exhorting someone he often inspired awe; yet when giving rebukes he was always gentle and tender. Who else could talk with so many people and be of such service to them, or could so concentrate their senses and turn them inwards that in the midst of tumult they lived with greater serenity than did those in the desert'? Who else could remain just the same whether among crowds or dwelling alone? It was by thus concentrating the senses and turning them inwards that the great Theodosios came to be wounded by love for the Creator.

From the Life of St Arsenios

St Arsenios made it a rule never to discuss things in writing and never to send letters. This was not out of weakness or incapacity - how could it have been, seeing that he could speak eloquently with as much ease as others displayed when speaking in a normal way? But it was due to his long habit of silence and his dislike of self-display. For the same reason he took great care when in church or at any other gathering not to look at other people or to be seen by them; he would stand behind a column or some other obstruction and hide himself from view, remaining unseen and not mixing with others. This holy man and earthly angel acted like this because he too wanted to keep a strict watch on himself and to concentrate his intellect inwardly so that he could raise himself towards God without impediment.

From the Life of St Paul of Mount Latros

Although the divine Paul always lived in the mountains and in desert places, and shared his solitude and his food with wild animals, there were nevertheless times when he went down to the Lavra in order to visit the brethren. He counseled them, exhorting them not to be fainthearted and not to neglect the assiduous practice of the virtues, but to persevere with all attentiveness and discrimination in their efforts to live according to the Gospels and in their courageous fight against the spirits of evil. He also taught them a method by which they could expunge ingrained passion-imbued dispositions as well as counteract new seeds of passion.

You see how this holy father teaches his uninitiated disciples a method through which they could ward off the attacks of the passions? This method was none other than the art of keeping watch over the intellect, for it is only by keeping such watch that we can ward off the passions.

From the Life of St Savvas

When St Savvas saw that a monk had thoroughly mastered the rules of monastic conduct, and was already able to keep watch over his intellect and fight off demonic thoughts - had indeed banished from his mind all memory of worldly things - then, if this monk was physically weak and ill, St Savvas allowed him to have a cell in the Lavra. But if such a monk was vigorous and in good health, he told him to build his own cell.

Do you see how the divine Sawas, too, required his disciples to keep watch over the intellect and only then permitted them to dwell by themselves in their own cells? What are we doing who idly sit in our cells without even knowing whether there is such an art as keeping watch over the intellect?

From the Life of Abba Agathon

One of the brethren asked Abba Agathon which is the better, bodily asceticism or the guarding of our inner state. The elder replied: 'Man is like a tree: bodily asceticism is the leaves, the guarding of our inner state the fruit. Since, according to the Scriptures, 'every tree that fails to produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire' (Matt. 3:10), it is clear that all our efforts should be devoted to producing the fruit, that is, to keeping watch over our intellect. But we also need the shelter and canopy of the leaves - bodily asceticism.'

How astonishing it is that this saint denounced those who fail to learn how to keep watch over the intellect and who boast only of their bodily asceticism: every tree, he said, which does not produce fruit - by which is meant keeping watch over the intellect - but only has leaves, that is, bodily asceticism, is cut down and thrown into the fire. How terrible, father, is your verdict.

From Abba Mark's Letter to Nicolas

If, my son, you wish to acquire within yourself your own lamp of noetic light and spiritual knowledge, so as to walk without stumbling in the dark night of this age; and if you wish your steps to be ordered by the Lord, delighting in the way of the Gospel - that is, desiring with ardent faith, with zeal and prayer, to practice the commandments of the Gospel - then I will show you a wonderful spiritual method to help you achieve this. It does not call for bodily exertion, but requires spiritual effort, control of the intellect, and an attentive understanding, assisted by fear and love of God. Through this method you can easily put to flight the cohorts of the enemy. If, then, you wish to triumph over the passions, enter within yourself through prayer and with the help of God. Descend into the depths of the heart, and search out the three powerful giants - forgetfulness, sloth and ignorance - which enable the rest of the evil passions to infiltrate into the self-indulgent soul, and to live, energize and flourish there. Then through strict attentiveness and control of the intellect, together with help from above, you will track down these evil giants, about which most people are ignorant; and so you will be able to free yourself from them by means of strict attentiveness and prayer. For when, through the action of grace, zeal for true knowledge, for mindfulness of God's words and for genuine concord is diligently planted and cultivated in the heart, then the last traces of forgetfulness, ignorance and sloth are expunged from it.

Observe how admirably different spiritual teachings concur, and how clearly they explain the meaning of prayer.

From St John Klimakos

A hesychast is one who strives to enshrine what is bodiless within the temple of the body, paradoxical though this may sound. A hesychast is one who says, T sleep but my heart is watchful' (Song of Songs 5:2). Close the door of your cell to the body, the door of your tongue to speech, and your inner gate to evil spirits. Ascend into a watchtower - if you know how to - and observe how and when and whence, and in what numbers and what form, the robbers try to break in and steal your grapes. When the watchman grows weary he stands up and prays; then he sits down again and manfully resumes the same task. Guarding against evil thoughts is one thing, keeping watch over the intellect is another. The latter differs from the former as much as east from west, and is far more difficult to attain. Where thieves see royal weapons at the ready they do not attack the place lightly. Similarly, spiritual robbers do not lightly try to plunder the person who has enshrined prayer within his heart.

Do you see how these words reveal the wonderful inner work of this great father? We, on the other hand, walk in darkness and as though in some midnight brawl tread these soul-saving words of the Spirit underfoot, spuming them as though willfully deaf But now in the passages that follow see what the fathers set down for us as guidance in the attaining of watchfulness.

From Isaiah the Solitary

When a man severs himself from evil, he gains an exact understanding of all the sins he has committed against God; for he does not see his sins unless he severs himself from them with a feeling of revulsion. Those who have reached this level pray to God with tears, and are filled with shame when they recall their evil love of the passions. Let us therefore pursue the spiritual way with all our strength, and God in His great mercy will help us. And if we have not guarded our hearts as our fathers guarded theirs, at least in obedience to God let us do all we can to keep our bodies sinless, trusting that at this time of spiritual dearth He will grant mercy to us together with His saints.

Here then this great father encourages those who are very weak, saying that, even if we have not guarded our hearts as the fathers have done, let us at least keep our bodies free from sin, as God demands, and He will be merciful to us. Great is the compassion and sympathy of such a father.

From St Makarios the Great

The most important task for an ascetic is to enter into his heart, to wage war against Satan, to hate him, and to battle with him by wrestling against the thoughts he provokes. If you keep your body outwardly chaste and pure, but inwardly are adulterous where God is concerned and profligate in your thoughts, then you gain nothing from keeping your body chaste. For it is written, 'Whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart' (Matt. 5:28). In other words, you can fornicate through the body, and you also fornicate when your soul communes with Satan.

From St Makarios the Great

This great father seems to contradict the words of St Isaiah quoted above. Yet this is not the case, for St Makarios exhorts us also to guard our body in the way that God requires. But he asks us to keep pure not only our body but our spirit as well. Thus he too enjoins what the Gospel commandments stipulate.

From Diadochos

He who dwells continually within his own heart is detached from the attractions of this world, for he lives in the Spirit and cannot know the desires of the flesh. Such a man henceforward patrols the fortress of the virtues, posting them as watchmen at all the gates. The assaults of the demons are now ineffective against him.

Rightly does the saint say that the assaults of the demons are now ineffective - ineffective, that is, when we dwell in the depth of our own hearts, and the more so the longer we dwell there. But I lack time to cite here extracts from all the fathers, so I will add one or two more and bring this work to a close.

From Isaac the Syrian

Strive to enter the shrine within you and you will see the shrine of heaven, for the one is the same as the other, and a single entrance permits you to contemplate both. The ladder leading to that kingdom is hidden within you, that is, within your soul: cleanse yourself from sin and there you will find the steps by which to ascend.

From John of Karpathos

A great effort and much toil are needed in prayer before we can reach a state in which our mind is no longer troubled, and so attain the inward heaven of the heart where Christ dwells. As St Paul says, 'Do you not realize that Christ dwells within you, unless you are worthless?' (cf 2 Cor. 13:5).

From Symeon the New Theologian

After the devil and his demons had brought about man's exile from paradise and from God by making him transgress, they found they could inwardly derange - to a greater or lesser extent - anyone's reason whenever they wanted to. The only defense against this is the ceaseless mindfulness of God, for if such mindfulness is stamped on the heart through the power of the cross it will render our thought steadfast and unshakeable. This is a state to which the spiritual contest of every Christian who enters the arena of Christ's faith should lead, if he is not to struggle in vain. For it is to achieve this state that God's athlete embraces all the various forms of ascetic practice. He embraces them so as to call down God's mercy upon him, that Christ may restore him to his original status and may be set as a seal on his mind. This accords with St Paul's words, 'My little children, for you I again bear the pangs of birth, until Christ is formed in you' (Gal. 4:19).

Have you grasped, brethren, that there is a spiritual art or method swiftly leading whoever pursues it to dispassion and the vision of God? Are you convinced that every external form of asceticism is regarded by God as the foliage of a fruitless tree and will be of no benefit to the soul that is not capable of guarding the intellect? Let us then strive not to die fruitless, and thereafter repent to no purpose.

Question: From what has been said we have learned not only of the practice of those who live in accordance with God's will but also that there is a certain fonn of action that speedily frees the soul from passions and unites it to love for God, and that everyone who engage in spiritual warfare must adopt this form. About these things we have no doubt and are quite convinced. But we are anxious to know what exactly attentiveness is and how we may acquire it, for of this we are altogether ignorant.

Response: In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ who said 'Without Me you can do nothing' (John 15:5), having invoked His help and assistance, I will do my best to show you what attentiveness is and how, if God wills, it may be attained.

From Nikiphoros Himself

Some of the saints have called attentiveness the guarding of the intellect others have called it custody of the heart, or watchfulness, or noetic stillness, and others something else. All these expressions indicate one and the same thing, just as 'bread' and 'a round' or 'a slice' do; and you should read them in this sense. As to what attentiveness itself is and what its characteristics are, this you can now learn in more detail.

Attentiveness is the sign of true repentance. It is the soul's restoration, hatred of the world, and return to God. It is rejection of sin and recovery of virtue. It is the unreserved assurance that our sins are forgiven. It is the beginning of contemplation or, rather, its presupposition, for through it God, descrying its presence in us reveals Himself to the intellect. It is serenity of intellect or, rather, the repose bestowed on the soul through God's mercy. It is the subjection of our thoughts, the palace of the mindfulness of God, the stronghold that enables us patiently to accept all that befalls. It is the ground of faith, hope and love. For if you do not have faith you cannot endure the outward afflictions that assail you; and if you do not bear them gladly you cannot say to the Lord, 'Thou art my helper and my refuge' (Ps 91:2).

And if the Most High is not your refuge you will not lay up His love in your heart.

Most if not all of those who attain this greatest of gifts do so chiefly through being taught. To be sure, a few without being taught receive it directly from God through the ardor of their endeavor and the fervor of their faith; but what is rare does not constitute the norm. That is why we should search for an unerring guide, so that under his instruction we may learn how to deal with the shortcomings and exaggerations suggested to us by the devil whenever we deviate left or right from the axis of attentiveness. Since such a guide will himself have been tested through what he has suffered, he will be able to make these things clear to us and will unambiguously disclose the spiritual path to us so that we can follow it easily. If you have no such guide you must diligently search for one. If, however, no guide is to be found, you must renounce worldly attachments, call on God with a contrite spirit and with tears, and do what I tell you.

You know that what we breathe is air. When we exhale it, it is for the heart's sake, for the heart is the source of life and warmth for the body. The heart draws towards itself the air inhaled when breathing, so that by discharging some of its heat when the air is exhaled it may maintain an even temperature. The cause of this process or, rather, its agent, are the lungs. The Creator has made these capable of expanding and contracting, like bellows, so that they can easily draw in and expel their contents. Thus, by taking in coolness and expelling heat through breathing, the heart performs unobstructed the function for which it was created, that of maintaining life.

Seat yourself, then, concentrate your intellect, and lead it into the respiratory passage through which your breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart. Once it has entered there, what follows will be neither dismal nor glum. Just as a man, after being far away from home, on his return is overjoyed at being with his wife and children again, so the intellect, once it is united with the soul, is filled with indescribable delight.

Therefore, brother, train your intellect not to leave your heart quickly, for at first it is strongly disinclined to remain constrained and circumscribed in this way. But once it becomes accustomed to remaining there, it can no longer bear to be outside the heart. For the kingdom of heaven is within us (cf Luke 17:21); and when the intellect concentrates its attention in the heart and through pure prayer searches there for the kingdom of heaven, all external things become abominable and hateful to it. If, then, after your first attempts you enter through your intellect into the abode of the heart in the way that I have explained, give thanks and glory to God, and exult in Him. Continually persevere in this practice and it will teach you what you do not know.

Moreover, when your intellect is firmly established in your heart, it must not remain there silent and idle; it should constantly repeat and meditate on the prayer, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me', and should never stop doing this. For this prayer protects the intellect from distraction, renders it impregnable to diabolic attacks, and every day increases its love and desire for God.

If, however, in spite of all your efforts you are not able to enter the realms of the heart in the way I have enjoined, do what I now tell you and with God's help you will find what you seek. You know that everyone's discursive faculty is centered in his breast; for when our lips are silent we speak and deliberate and formulate prayers, psalms and other things in our breast. Banish, then, all thoughts from this faculty - and you can do this if you want to - and in their place put the prayer, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me', and compel it to repeat this prayer ceaselessly. If you continue to do this for some time, it will assuredly open for you the entrance to your heart in the way we have explained, and as we ourselves know from experience.

Then, along with the attentiveness you have so wished for, the whole choir of the virtues - love, joy, peace and the others (cf Gal. 5:22) - will come to you. Through the virtues all your petitions will be answered in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power, honor and worship now and always and throughout the ages. Amen.

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