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St Symeon Metaphrastis: Paraphrase of the Homilies of St Makarios of Egypt: II: Prayer

18. The crown of every good endeavor and the highest of achievements is dihgence in prayer. Through it God guiding us and lending a helping hand, we come to acquire the other virtues. It is in prayer that the saints experience communion in the hidden energy of God's holiness and inner union with it, and their intellect itself is brought through unutterable love into the presence of the Lord. 'Thou hast given gladness to my heart', wrote the psalmist (Ps. 4:7); and the Lord Himself said that 'the kingdom of heaven is within you' (cf Luke 17:21). And what does the kingdom being within mean except that the heavenly gladness of the Spirit is clearly stamped on the virtuous soul? For already in this life, through active communion in the Spirit, the virtuous soul receives a foretaste and a prelude of the delight, joy and spiritual gladness which the saints will enjoy in the eternal light of Christ's kingdom. This is something that St Paul also affirms: 'He consoles us in our afflictions, so that we can console others in every affliction through the consolation with which we ourselves have been consoled by God' (2 Cor. 1:4). And passages in the Psalms likewise hint at this active gladness and consolation of the Spirit, such as: 'My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God' (Ps. 84:2. LXX): and: 'My soul will be filled with marrow and fatness' (Ps. 63:5).

19. Just as the work of prayer is greater than other work, so it demands greater effort and attention from the person ardently devoted to it, lest without him being aware the devil deprives him of it. The greater the good a person has in his care, the greater the attacks the devil launches on him; hence he must keep strict watch, so that fruits of love and humility, simplicity and goodness - and, along with them, fruits of discrimination - may grow daily from the constancy of his prayer. These will make evident his progress and increase in holiness, thus encouraging others to make similar efforts.

20. Not only does St Paul instruct us to pray without ceasing and to persist in prayer (cf. I Thess. 5:17; Rom. 12:12), but so also does the Lord when He says that God will vindicate those who cry out to Him day and night (cf Luke 18:7) and counsels us to 'watch and pray' (Matt. 26 : 41). We must therefore pray always and not lose heart (cf. Luke 18:1). To put things more succinctly: he who persists in prayer has to struggle greatly and exert himself relentlessly if he is to overcome the many obstacles with which the devil tries to impede his diligence - obstacles such as sleep, listlessness, physical torpor, distraction of thought, confusion of intellect, debility, and so on, not to mention afflictions, and also the attacks of the evil spirits that violently fight against us, opposing us and trying to prevent the soul from approaching God when it truly and ceaselessly seeks Him.

21. He who cultivates prayer has to fight with all diligence and watchfulness, all endurance, all struggle of soul and toil of body, so that he does not become sluggish and surrender himself to distraction of thought, to excessive sleep, to listlessness, debility and confusion, or defile himself with turbulent and indecent suggestions, yielding his mind to things of this kind, satisfied merely with standing or kneeling for a long time, while his intellect wanders far away. For unless a person has been trained in strict vigilance, so that when attacked by a flood of useless thoughts he tests and sifts them all, yearning always for the Lord, he is readily seduced in many unseen ways by the devil. Moreover, those not yet capable of persisting in prayer can easily grow arrogant, thus allowing the machinations of evil to destroy the good work in which they are engaged and making a present of it to the devil.

22. Unless humility and love, simplicity and goodness regulate our prayer, this prayer - or, rather, this pretence of prayer - cannot profit us at all. And this applies not only to prayer, but to every labor and hardship undertaken for the sake of virtue, whether this be virginity, fasting, vigil, psalmody, service or any other work. If we do not see in ourselves the fruits of love, peace, joy, simplicity, humility, gentleness, guilelessness, faith, forbearance and kindliness, then we endure our hardship to no purpose. We accept the hardships in order to reap the fruits. If the fruits of love are not in us, our labor is useless. In such a case we differ in nothing from the five foolish virgins: because their hearts were not filled here and now, in this present life, with spiritual oil - that is to say, with the energy of the Spirit active in the virtues of which we have spoken - they were called fools and were abjectly excluded from the royal bridechamber, not enjoying any reward for their efforts to preserve their virginity (cf Matt. 25:1-13). When we cultivate a vineyard, the whole of our attention and labor is given in the expectation of the vintage; if there is no vintage, all our work is to no purpose. Similarly, if through the activity of the Spirit we do not perceive within ourselves the fruits of love, peace, joy and the other qualities mentioned by St Paul (cf. Gal. 5:22), and cannot affirm this with all assurance and spiritual awareness, then our labor for the sake of virginity, prayer, psalmody, fasting and vigil is useless. For, as we said, our labors and hardships of soul and body should be undertaken in expectation of the spiritual harvest; and where the virtues are concerned, the harvest consists of spiritual enjoyment and incorruptible pleasure secretly made active by the Spirit in faithful and humble hearts. Thus the labors and hardships must be regarded as labors and hardships and the fruits as fruits. Should someone through lack of spiritual knowledge think that his work and hardship are fruits of the Spirit, he should realize that he is deluding himself, and in this way depriving himself of the truly great fruits of the Spirit.

23. The person who has surrendered himself entirely to sin indulges with enjoyment and pleasure in unnatural and shameful passions - licentiousness, unchastity, greed, hatred, guile and other forms of vice - as though they were natural. The genuine and perfected Christian, on the other hand, with great enjoyment and spiritual pleasure participates effortlessly and without impediment in all the virtues and all the supranatural fruits of the Spirit - love, peace, patient endurance, faith, humility and the entire truly golden galaxy of virtue - as though they were natural. He does not fight any longer against the passions of evil, for he has been totally set free of them by the Lord; while from the blessed Spirit he has received Christ's perfect peace and joy in his heart. Of such a man it may be said that he cleaves to the Lord and has become one spirit with Him (cf. I Cor. 6:17).

24. Those who because of their spiritual immaturity cannot yet commit themselves entirely to the work of prayer should undertake to serve the brethren with reverence, faith and devout fear. They should do this because they regard such service as a divine commandment and a spiritual task; they should not expect reward, honor or thanks from men, and they should shun all complaint, haughtiness, negligence or sluggishness. In this way they will not soil and corrupt this blessed work, but through their reverence, fear and joy will make it acceptable to God.

25. The Lord descended to the human level with such love, goodness and divine compassion for us, that He took it upon Himself not to overlook the reward of any good work, but to lead us step by step from the small to the great virtues, so that not even a cup of cold water should go unrequited. For He said: 'If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to someone simply in the name of a disciple, I tell you truly that he will not go unrewarded' (cf Matt. 10:42); and elsewhere: 'Whatever you did to one of these, you did to Me' (cf. Matt. 25:40). Only the action must be done in the name of God, not for the sake of receiving honor from men: the Lord said, 'simply in the name of a disciple', that is to say, in the fear and love of Christ. Those who do good with ostentation are rebuked categorically by the Lord: 'I tell you truly, they have received their reward' (Matt. 6:2).

26. Simplicity before others, guilelessness, mutual love, joy and humility of every kind, must be laid down as the foundation of the community. Otherwise, disparaging others or grumbling about them, we make our labor profitless. He who persists ceaselessly in prayer must not disparage the man incapable of doing this, nor must the man who devotes himself to serving the needs of the community complain about those who are dedicated to prayer. For if both the prayers and the service are offered in a spirit of simplicity and love for others, the superabundance of those dedicated to prayer will make up for the insufficiency of those who serve, and vice versa. In this way the equality that St Paul commends is maintained (of. 2 Cor. 8:14): he who has much does not have to excess and he who has little has no lack (cf. Exod. 16:18).

27. God's will is done on earth as in heaven when, in the way indicated, we do not disparage one another, and when not only are we without jealousy but we are united one to another in simplicity and in mutual love, peace and joy, and regard our brother's progress as our own and his failure as our loss.

28. He who is sluggish in prayer, and slothful and negligent in serving his brethren and in performing other holy tasks, is explicitly called an idler by the apostle, and condemned as unworthy even of his bread. For St Paul writes that the idler is not to have any food (cf. 2 Thess. 3:10); and elsewhere it is said that God hates idlers, that the idle man cannot be trusted, and that idleness has taught great evil (cf. Ecclus. 33:27). Thus each of us should bear the fruit of some action performed in God's name, even if he has employed himself diligently in but one good work. Otherwise he will be totally barren, and without any share in eternal blessings.

29. When people say that it is impossible to attain perfection, to be once and for all free from the passions, or to participate fully in the Holy Spirit, we should cite Holy Scripture against them, showing them that they are ignorant and speak falsely and dangerously. For the Lord said: 'Become perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matt. 5:48), perfection denoting total purity; and: 'I desire these men to be with Me wherever I am, so that they may see My glory' (John 17:24). He also said: 'Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away' (Matt. 24:35). And St Paul is saying the same as Christ when he writes: '. . . so that we may present every man perfect in Christ' (Col. 1:28); and:'. . . until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ' (Eph. 4:13). Thus by aspiring to perfection two of the best things come about, provided we struggle diligently and unceasingly: we seek to attain this perfect measure and growth; and we are not conquered by vanity, but look upon ourselves as petty and mean because we have not yet reached our goal.

30. Those who deny the possibility of perfection inflict the greatest damage on the soul in three ways. First, they manifestly disbelieve the inspired Scriptures. Then, because they do not make the greatest and fullest goal of Christianity their own, and so do not aspire to attain it, they can have no longing and diligence, no hunger and thirst for righteousness (cf Matt. 5:6); on the contrary, content with outward show and behavior and with minor accomplishments of this kind, they abandon that blessed expectation together with the pursuit of perfection and of the total purification of the passions. Third, thinking they have reached the goal when they have acquired a few virtues, and not pressing on to the true goal, not only are they incapable of having any humility, poverty and contrition of heart but, justifying themselves on the grounds that they have already arrived, they make no efforts to progress and grow day by day.

31. People who think it is impossible to attain through the Spirit the 'new creation' of the pure heart (cf 2 Cor. 5:17) are rightly and explicitly likened by the apostle to those who, because of their unbelief, were found unworthy of entering the promised land and whose bodies on that account 'were left lying in the desert' (Heb. 3:17). What is here outwardly described as the promised land signifies inwardly that deliverance from the passions which the apostle regards as the goal of every commandment. This is the true promised land, and for its sake these figurative teachings have been handed down. In order to protect his disciples from yielding to unbelief the apostle says to them: 'Make sure, my brethren, that no one among you has an evil heart of unbelief, turning away from the living God' (Heb. 3:12). By 'turning away' he means not the denial of God but disbelief in His promises. Interpreting the events of Jewish history allegorically and indicating their true meaning, he says: 'For some, when they heard, were rebellious, though not all of those who were brought out of Egypt by Moses. And with whom was God angry for forty years? Was it not with those who had sinned, whose bodies were left lying in the desert? And to whom did He vow that they would not enter into His rest unless it was to those who refused to believe? We see, then, that it was because of their unbelief that they could not enter' (Heb. 3:16-19). And he continues: 'Let us be fearful, then: although the promise of entering into His rest still holds good, some of you may be excluded from it. For we have heard the divine message, as they did; but the message that they heard did not profit them, since it was not accompanied by faith on their part. We, however, who have faith do enter into God's rest' (Heb. 4:1-3). Shortly after this he draws the same conclusion: 'Let us strive therefore to enter into that rest, so that no one may fall through copying this example of unbelief (Heb. 4: I 1). For Christians what true rest is there other than deliverance from the sinful passions and the fullest active indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the purified heart? And the apostle again impels his readers towards this by referring to faith: 'Let us then draw near with a true heart and in the full assurance of faith, our hearts cleansed of an evil conscience' (Heb. 10:22). And again: 'How much more will the blood of Jesus purge our conscience of dead works, so that we may serve the living and true God' (cf. Heb. 9:14). Because of the measureless blessings promised by God to men in these words, we should dedicate ourselves as grateful servants and regard what is promised as true and certain. In this way, even if through sluggishness or debility of resolution we do not give ourselves once for all to our Maker, or if we do not strive to achieve the greatest and most perfect measure of virtue, none the less through an upright and undistorted will and a sound faith we may attain some degree of mercy.

32. Prayer rightly combined with understanding is superior to every virtue and commandment. The Lord Himself testifies to this. For in the house of Martha and Mary He contrasted Martha, who was engaged in looking after Him, with Mary, who sat at His feet joyfully drinking the ambrosia of His divine words. When Martha complained and appealed to Christ, He made clear to her what takes precedence, saying: 'Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing alone is needful: Mary has chosen what is best, and it cannot be taken away from her' (Luke 10:41-42). He said this not in order to disparage acts of service, but so as to distinguish clearly what is higher from what is lower. For how could He not give His sanction to service when He Himself performed such service in washing His disciples' feet, and was so far from discountenancing it that He bade His disciples to behave in the same way towards each other (cf John 13:4-16)? Moreover, the apostles themselves, when they were oppressed by serving at table, also singled out prayer and understanding as the higher form of work. 'It is not right', they said, 'for us to abandon the word of God in order to serve at table. Let us appoint chosen men, full of the Holy Spirit, for this service; we will devote ourselves to the ministry of the Logos and to prayer' (cf. Acts 6:2-4). In this way they put first things before secondary things, although they recognized that both spring from the same blessed root.

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