Friday, August 9, 2013
Life of a monk
The Fathers say that half of spiritual life is to remain in the cell, and visiting the elders is the other half. This expression means that both inside the cell and outside the cell we must be equally heedful, and we must know why we should keep silence in the cell and why we should go to the fathers and brethren; for one who keeps sight of these aims strives to act as the Fathers teach. These aims are: when the monk remains in his cell he prays, studies the Holy Scriptures, he occupies himself with a little handiwork and according to his strength concerns himself with his thoughts. When he goes out somewhere he notices and examines his state of mind: does he receive benefit from meeting with the brethren or not? And can he return without harm to his cell? If he sees that he has suffered some harm, then he will thereby come to recognize his infirmity; he can see that he has not yet acquired anything from his hesychia, and, being humbled, he returns to his cell, repenting, weeping and praying to God over his infirmity. Thus he resumes abiding in his cell and being attentive to himself.
Later he goes out again to the company of people, and observes himself to see whether he is conquered by the same thing that conquered him before, or perhaps by something else. So he returns again to his cell and does the same thing: he weeps, repents, and entreats God over his infirmity; for the cell exalts, but people tempt. Therefore the Fathers spoke well when they said abiding in the cell is one-half and visiting others is the other half. So should you, brethren, know why you are leaving your cell when you go out to see each other. You should not go anywhere senselessly or without a purpose, for he who undertakes a journey without a purpose, according to the words of the Fathers, will labor in vain.
Thus every monk should unfailingly have an aim when he does something, and should know why he does it. What should be our aim in visiting each other? First of all we should visit each other out of love: for it is said, "Seeing your brother, you have seen the Lord your God." Secondly, in order to hear the word of God, for amongst a multitude of brethren, the word of God is always more readily apprehended; because often what one brother does not know another does know, and the first one asking him, might therefore learn it. Finally, one goes into the company of people in order to find out one's own state of soul, as I have said earlier. For example, if a monk goes, as often happens, to eat with others, he should take note and examine himself: when good food is offered, something he likes, can he refrain and not take it? Do he try not to offend his brother by not taking more than him, or, when something is offered which has been cut into pieces, does he try to take the larger piece and leave the smaller piece to the other? For it happens that one may not even be ashamed to stretch out his hand and give the smaller piece to his brother, taking the larger for himself. What difference can there be between the larger piece and the smaller? Is the difference great? And for such an insignificant thing one offends his brother and commits a sin.
He should also note whether he can refrain from many foods; and upon finding them, does he surrender himself to over-eating, as sometimes happens? He should also note whether he refrains from presumptuousness, or if he takes offense when he sees that another brother is preferred over him and treated with more solicitude. If he sees that someone is too free in manner or talks too much, or does something inappropriate, does he notice this and judge him? Or does he pay no attention to this and disregard it, observing rather the more reverent and zealous? Does he strive to emulate St. Anthony, who when visiting others would notice only what good qualities they possessed, and would emulate them and adopt their qualities as his own. From one he would borrow meekness, from another humility, from another silence, and thus he assimilated the virtues of each one of them. We should do the same, adopting this as our purpose for visiting others, and when we return to our cells we should test ourselves to see what has brought us benefit and what has brought us harm. And if we were preserved from some harm let us give thanks to God; but if we have sinned in any way let us repent, let us weep and lament over the state of our souls. For it is from our own disposition of soul that we receive harm or benefit, and no one else can harm us. If we are harmed, this harm comes, as I have said, from the state of our own souls; for from every thing that happens, as I constantly tell you, we can receive either benefit or harm, as we ourselves wish. I will give you an example so that you might see that this is true.
Let us suppose that a man is standing at night someplace on the street--not a monk, but some resident of the city. Three men pass him by. One sees him and thinks that he is waiting for someone with whom he will commit fornication; the second one thinks that he is a thief; and the third thinks that he has called upon a friend of his in a house nearby, and is waiting for him to go together to a local church and pray. So all three have seen one and the same man at one and the same place but these three men have not formed one and the same idea about him. One has thought one thing, the second another, the third something else; and it is apparent that each has done this in accordance with his own state. For just as bodies that are afflicted with black gall and bad fluids turn every food they take in into bad fluids, even though their food might be good, the cause lying not in the food but in the sickness, as I have said, of the body itself, which converts the food according to its own sickness. For also the soul that has bad tendencies is harmed by everything, however useful the thing is. Imagine a vessel with honey in it: if someone were to pour a bitter tincture into it, would this little amount not ruin all the honey in the vessel and make it bitter? It is the same with us: we mix in a little of our own bitterness and destroy our neighbor's goodness, viewing it through the state of our own soul, and perverting it according to our own immorality. A man with a good disposition is like a man with a healthy body. Even if he eats something harmful it is converted into beneficial fluids by his body's good state; the bad food does not harm him because, as I have said, the body is healthy and it assimilates the food according to its own good quality. The first turns even good food into evil fluids through his evil disposition, while the latter turns even bad things into good fluids through the good qualities of his body. I will give you an example so that you might understand this.
A viper has quite a healthy body, and his food consists of shells, date pits, acorns and leaves; nonetheless, since his body is healthy it converts even such foods into good fluids. So we also, if we have a good disposition and are in a good state of soul, can receive benefit from everything, as I have said before, even though this thing might not be quite beneficial in and of itself. And the Wise Solomon has well said, He who sees lightly will have great mercy (Wisdom 38:13), and in another place, For the ungodly and his ungodliness are both alike hateful unto God (Wis. 14:9).
I heard about a certain brother, that when he had come to one of the brethren and would see that the cell was unswept and disorderly, would say to himself, "Blessed is this brother because he has set aside all cares for everything earthly, and directs all his mind upwards, so that he does not even find time to put his cell in order." And when he would come to another and see that his cell was in good order, swept and tidy, then again he would say to himself, "How pure is the soul of this brother--his cell is clean, and the state of his cell is in accord with the state of his soul." Never did he say of anyone, "This brother is negligent, or this one is vainglorious," but according to his good outlook he received benefit from each one. May the Good God grant to us a good state of soul, so that we also might receive benefit from each person and never notice the faults of our neighbor. And if we, by the sinfulness characteristic of us, should notice or make suppositions about the faults of others, let us then immediately turn our thoughts into good thoughts. For if a man does not notice the faults of his neighbor, then with the help of God there is born in him a goodness which makes him pleasing to God. For to Him is due every glory, honor and worship unto the ages. Amen.