St John Cassian On the Eight Vices
Written for Bishop Kastor
Having composed the treatise on cenobitic institutions, I am now once more encouraged by your prayers to attempt to write something about the eight vices: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, restlessness, self-esteem and pride.
On Control of the Stomach
I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite to gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have not given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies. They also found a day’s fast to be more beneficial and a greater help toward purity than one extending over a period of three, four, or even seven days. Someone who fasts for too long, they say, often ends up by eating too much food. The result is that at times the body becomes enervated through undue lack of food and sluggish over its spiritual exercises, while at other times, weighed down by the mass of food it has eaten, it makes the soul listless and slack.
They also found that the eating of greens or pulse did not agree with everyone, and that not everyone could live on dry bread. One man, they said, could eat two pounds of dry bread and still be hungry, while another might eat a pound, or only six ounces, and be satisfied. As I said, the Fathers have handed down a single basic rule of self-control: ‘do not be deceived by the filling of the belly’ (Proverbs 24:15. LXX), or be led astray by the pleasure of the palate. It is not only the variety of foodstuffs that kindles the fiery darts of unchastity, but also their quantity. Whatever the kind of food with which it is filled, the belly engenders the seed of profligacy. It is not only too much wine that besots our mind: too much water or too much of anything makes it drowsy and stupefied. The Sodomites were destroyed not because of too much wine or too much of other foods, but because of a surfeit of bread, as the Prophet tells us (Ezekiel 16:49).
Bodily illness is not an obstacle to purity of heart, provided we give the body what its illness requires, not what gratifies our desire for pleasure. Food is to be taken in so far as it supports our life, but not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire. To eat moderately and reasonably is to keep the body in health, not to deprive it of holiness.
A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied. When the Apostle said, ‘Make no provision to fulfill the desires of the flesh’ (Romans 13:14), he was not forbidding us to provide for the needs of life: he was warning us against self-indulgence. Moreover, by itself abstinence from food does not contribute to perfect purity of soul unless the other virtues are active as well. Humility, for example, practiced through obedience in our work and through bodily hardship, is a great help. If we avoid avarice not only by having no money, but also by not wanting to have any, this leads us towards purity of soul.
Freedom from anger, from dejection, self-esteem and pride also contributes to purity of soul in general, while self-control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation. No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity. Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting but also through vigils, labors and spiritual, reading, and through concentrating our heart on fear of Gehenna and on longing for the kingdom of heaven.
On the Demon of Unchastity and the Desire of the Flesh
Our second struggle is against the demon of unchastity and the desire of the flesh, a desire which begins to trouble man from the time of his youth. This harsh struggle has to be fought in both soul and body, and not simply in the soul, as is the case with other faults. We therefore have to fight it on two fronts.
Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring about perfect self-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil and manual labor. These are able to check the restless impulses of the soul and to recall it from its shameful fantasies. Humility of soul helps more than everything else, however, and without it no one can overcome unchastity or any other sin. In the first place, then, we must take the utmost care to guard the heart from base thoughts, for, according to the Lord, ‘out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity’ and so on (Matthew 15:19).
We are told to fast not only to mortify our body, but also to keep our intellect watchful, so that it will not be obscured because of the amount of food we have eaten and thus be unable to guard its thoughts. We must not therefore expend all our effort in bodily fasting; we must also give attention to our thoughts and to spiritual meditation, since otherwise we will not be able to advance to the heights of true purity and chastity. As our Lord has said, we should ‘cleanse first the inside of the cup and plate, so that their outside may also be clean’ (Matthew 23:26).
If we are really eager, as the Apostle puts it, to ‘struggle lawfully’ and to ‘be crowned” (2 Timothy 2:5) for overcoming the impure spirit of unchastity, we should not trust in our own strength arid ascetic practice, but in the help of our Master, God. No one ceases to be attacked by this demon until he truly believes that he will be healed and reach the heights of purity not through his own effort and labor, but through the aid and protection of God. For such a victory is beyond man’s natural powers. Indeed, he who has trampled down the pleasures and provocations of the flesh is in a certain sense outside the body. Thus, no one can soar to this high and heavenly prize of holiness on his own wings and learn to imitate the angels,
No virtue makes flesh-bound man so like a spiritual angel as does self-restraint, for it enables those still living on earth to become, as the Apostle says, ‘citizens of heaven’ (Philipians. 3:20). A sign that we have acquired this virtue perfectly is that our soul ignores those images which the defiled fantasy produces during sleep; for even if the production of such images is not a sin, nevertheless it is a sign that the soul is ill and has not been freed from passion. We should therefore regard the defiled fantasies that arise in us during sleep as the proof of previous indolence and weakness still existing a us; since the emission which takes place while we are relaxed in sleep reveals the sickness that lies hidden in our souls.
Because of this the Doctor of our souls has also placed the remedy in the hidden regions of the soul, recognizing that the cause of our sickness lies there when He says: ‘Whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). He seeks to correct not so much our inquisitive and unchaste eyes as the soul which has its seat within and makes bad use of the eyes which God gave it for good purposes. That is why the Book of Proverbs in its wisdom does not say: ‘Guard your eyes with all diligence’ but ‘Guard your heart with all diligence’ (Proverbs 4:23), imposing the remedy of diligence in the first instance upon that which makes use of the eyes for whatever purpose it desires.
The way to keep guard over our heart is immediately to expel from the mind every demon-inspired recollection of women - even of mother or sister or any other devout woman - lest by dwelling on it for too long the mind is thrown headlong by the deceiver into debased and pernicious thoughts. The commandment given by God to the first man, Adam, told him to keep watch over the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15. LXX), that is, over the first inklings of the pernicious thoughts by means of which the serpent tries to creep into our souls. If we do not admit the serpent’s head, which is the provocation of the thought, we will not admit the rest of its body - that is, the assent* to the sensual pleasure which the thought suggests - and so debase the mind towards the illicit act itself.
As it is written, we should ‘early in the morning destroy all the wicked of the earth’ (Psalms 101:8), distinguishing in the light of divine knowledge’ our sinful thoughts and then eradicating them completely from the earth - our hearts -in accordance with the teaching of the Lord. While the-children of Babylon - by which I mean our wicked thoughts - are still young, we should dash them to the ground and crush them against the rock, which is Christ (Psalms. 137:9; 1 Corinthians 16:4). If these thoughts grow stronger because we assent to them, we will not be able to overcome them without much pain and labor.
It is good to remember the sayings of the Fathers as well as the passages from Holy Scripture cited above. For example, St Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, said; ‘I have not known a woman and yet I am not a virgin.’ He recognized that the gift of virginity is achieved not so much by abstaining from intercourse with woman as by holiness and purity of soul, which in its turn is achieved through fear of God. The Fathers also say that we cannot fully acquire the virtue of purity unless we have first acquired real humility of heart. And we will not be granted true spiritual knowledge so long as the passion of unchastity lies hidden in the depths of our souls.
To bring this section of our treatise to a close, let us recall one of the Apostle’s sayings which further illustrates his teaching on how to acquire self-restraint. He says; ‘Pursue peace with all men and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14). It is clear that he is talking about self-restraint from what follows: ‘Lest there be any unchaste or profane person, such as Esau’ (Hebrews 12:16). The more heavenly and angelic the degree of holiness, the heavier are the enemies’ attacks to which it is subjected. We should therefore try to achieve not only bodily control, but also contrition of heart with frequent prayers of repentance, so that with the dew of the Holy Spirit we may extinguish the furnace of our flesh, kindled daily by the king of Babylon with the bellows of desire (Dan. 3:19). In addition, a great weapon has been given us in the form of sacred vigils; for just as the watch we keep over our droughts by day brings us holiness at night. So vigil at night brings purity to the soul by day.
Our third struggle is against the demon of avarice, a demon clearly foreign to our nature, who only gains entry into a monk because he is lacking in faith. The other passions, such as anger and desire, seem to be occasioned by the body and in some sense implanted in us at birth. Hence they are conquered only after a long time. The sickness of avarice, on the contrary, can with diligence and attention be cut off more readily, because ft enters from outside. If neglected, however, it becomes even harder to get rid of and more destructive than the other passions, for according to the Apostle it is ‘the root of all evil’ (Tim. 6:10).
Let us look at it in this fashion. Movement occurs in the sexual organs not only of young children who cannot yet distinguish between good and evil, but also of the smallest infants still at their mother’s breast. The latter, although quite ignorant of sensual pleasure, nevertheless manifest such natural movements in the flesh. Similarly, the incensive power exists in infants, as we can see when they are roused against anyone hurting them. I say this not to accuse nature of being the cause of sin - heaven forbid! - but to show that the incensive power and desire, even if implanted in man by the Creator for a good purpose, appear to change through neglect from being natural in the body into something that is unnatural. Movement in the sexual organs was given to us by the Creator for procreation and the continuation of the species, not for unchastity: while incensive power was planted in us for our salvation, so that we could manifest it against wickedness, but not so that we could act like wild beasts towards our fellow men. Even if we make bad use of these passions, nature itself is not therefore sinful, nor should we blame the Creator. A man who gives someone a knife for some necessary and useful purpose is not to blame if that person uses it to commit murder.
This has been said to make it clear that avarice is a passion deriving, not from our nature, but solely from an evil and perverted use of our free will. When this sickness finds the soul lukewarm and lacking in faith at the start of the ascetic path, it suggests to us various apparently justifiable and sensible reasons for keeping back something of what we possess. It conjures up in a monk’s mind a picture of a lengthy old age and bodily illness; and it persuades him that the necessities of life provided by the monastery are insufficient to sustain a healthy man, much less an ill one; that in the monastery the sick,instead of receiving proper attention, are hardly cared for at all; and that unless he has some money tucked away, he will die a miserable death. Finally, it convinces him that he will not be able to remain long in the monastery because of the load of his work and the strictness of the abbot. When with thoughts like these it has seduced his mind with the idea of concealing any sum, however trifling, it persuades him to learn, unknown to the abbot, some handicraft through which he can increase his cherished hoardings. Then it deceives the wretched monk with secret expectations, making him imagine what he will earn from his handicraft, and the comfort and security which will result from it.
Now completely given over to the thought of gain, he notices none of the evil passions which attack him: his raging fury when he happens to sustain a loss, his gloom and dejection when he falls short of the gain he hoped for. Just as for other people the belly is a god, so for him is money. That is why the Apostle, knowing this, calls avarice not only ‘the root of all evil’ but ‘idolatry’ as well (Col. 3:5).
How is it that this sickness can so pervert a man that he ends up as an idolater? It is because he now fixes his intellect on the love, not of God, but of the images of men stamped on gold. A monk darkened by such thoughts and launched on the downward path can no longer be obedient. He is irritable and resentful, and grumbles about every task. He answers back and, having lost his sense of respect, behaves like a stubborn, uncontrollable horse. He is not satisfied with the day’s ration of food and complains that he cannot put up with such conditions for ever.
Neither God’s presence, he says, nor the possibility of his own salvation is confined to the monastery; and, he concludes, he will perish if he does not leave it. He is so excited and encouraged in these perverse thoughts by his secret hoardings that he even plans to quit the monastery. Then he replies proudly and harshly no matter what he is told to do, and pays no heed if he sees something in the monastery that needs to be set right, considering himself a stranger and outsider and finding fault with all that takes place. Then he seeks excuses for being angry or injured, so that he will not appear to be leaving the monastery frivolously and without cause. He does not even shrink from trying through gossip and idle talk to seduce someone else into leaving with him, wishing to have an accomplice in his sinful action.
Because the avaricious monk is so fired with desire for private wealth he will never be able to live at peace in a monastery or under a rule. When like a wolf the demon has snatched him from the fold and separated him from the Hock, he makes ready to devour him: he sets-him to work day and night m his cell on the very tasks which he complained of doing at fixed times in the monastery. But the demon does not allow him to keep the regular prayers or norms of fasting or orders of vigil. Having bound him fast in the madness of avarice, he persuades him to devote all his effort to his handicraft.
There are three forms of this sickness, all of which are equally condemned by the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Fathers. The first induces those who were poor to acquire and save the goods they lacked in the world. The second compels those who have renounced worldly goods by offering them to God, to have regrets and to seek after them again. A third infects a monk from the start with lack of faith and ardor, so preventing his complete detachment from worldly things, producing in him a fear of poverty and distrust in God’s providence and leading him to break the promises he made when he renounced the world.
Examples of these three forms of avarice are, as I have said, condemned in Holy Scripture. Gehazi wanted to acquire property which he did not previously possess, and therefore never received the prophetic grace which his teacher had wished to leave him in the place of an inheritance. Because of the prophet’s curse he inherited incurable leprosy instead of a blessing (2 Kings 5:27). And Judas, who wished to acquire money which he had previously abandoned on following Christ, not only lapsed so far as to betray the Master and lose his place in the circle of the apostles; he also put an end to his life in the flesh through a violent death (Matthew 27:5). Thirdly, Ananias and Sapphira were condemned to death by the Apostle’s word when they kept back something of what they had acquired (Acts 5:1-10).
Again, in Deuteronomy Moses is indirectly exhorting those who promise to renounce the world, and who then retain their earthly possessions because of the fear that comes from lack of faith, when he says: ‘What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? He shall not go out to do battle; let him return to his house, lest his brethren’s heart faint as well as his heart’ (Deuteronomy 20:8). Could anything be clearer or more certain than this testimony? Should not we who have left the world learn from these examples to renounce it completely and in this state go forth to do battle? We should not turn others from the perfection taught in the Gospels and make them cowardly because of our own hesitant and feeble start.
Some, impelled by their own deceit and avarice, distort the meaning of the scriptural statement, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35). They do the same with the Lord’s words when He says, ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come and follow Me’ (Matthew 19:21). They judge that it is more blessed to have control over one’s personal wealth, and to give from this to those in need, than to possess nothing at all. They should know, however, that they have not yet renounced the world or achieved monastic perfection so long as they are ashamed to accept for Christ’s sake the poverty of the Apostle and to provide for themselves and the needy through the labor of their hands (Acts 20:34); for only in this way will they fulfill the .monastic profession and be glorified with the Apostle. Having distributed their former wealth, let them fight the good fight with Paul ‘in hunger and thirst … in cold and nakedness’ (2 Corinthians 11:27).
Had the Apostle thought that the possession of one’s former wealth was more necessary for perfection, he would not have despised his official status as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25). Nor would those in Jerusalem have sold their houses and fields and given the money they got from them to the apostles (Acts 4: 34-35), had they felt that the apostles considered it more blessed to live off one’s own possessions than from one’s labor and the offerings of the Gentiles.
The Apostle gives us a clear lesson in this matter when he writes to the Romans in the passage beginning, ‘But now I go to Jerusalem to minister to the saints’, and ending: ‘They were pleased to do it, and indeed they are in debt to them’ (Romans 15:25-27). He himself was often in chains, in prison or on fatiguing travel, and so was usually prevented from providing for himself with his own hands. He tells us that he accepted the necessities of life from the brethren who came to him from Macedonia (Corinthians 11:9); and writing to the Philippians he says: ‘Now you Philippians know also that … when I departed from Macedonia no church except you helped me with gifts of money. For even in Thessalonica you sent me help, not once but twice’ (Phil. 4:15-16). Are, then, the avaricious right and are these men more blessed than the Apostle himself, because they satisfied his wants from their own resources? Surely no one would be so foolish as to say this.
If we want to follow the gospel commandment and the practice of the whole Church as it was founded initially upon the apostles. We should not follow our own notions or give wrong meanings to things rightly said. We must discard faint-hearted, faithless opinion and recover the strictness of the Gospel; In this way we shall be able to follow also in the footsteps of the Fathers, adhering to the discipline of the cenobitic life and truly renouncing this world.
It is good here to recall the words of St Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. He is reported once to have said to a senator, who had renounced the world in a half-hearted manner and was keeping back some of his personal fortune: ‘You have lost the senator and failed to make a monk.’ We should therefore make every effort to cut out from our souls this root of all evils, avarice, in the certain knowledge that if the root remains the branches will sprout freely.
This uprooting is difficult to achieve unless we are living in a monastery, for in a monastery we cease to worry about even our most basic needs. With the fate of Ananias and Sapphira in mind, we should shudder at the thought of keeping to ourselves anything of our former possessions. Similarly, frightened by the example of Gehazi who was afflicted with incurable leprosy because of his avarice, let us guard against piling up money which we did not have while in the world. Finally, recalling Judas’ death by hanging, let us beware of acquiring again any of the things which we have already renounced. In all this we should remember how uncertain is the hour of our death, so that our Lord does not come unexpectedly and, finding our conscience soiled with avarice, say to us what God says to the rich man in the Gospel: ‘You fool, this night your soul will be required of you: who then will be the owner of what you have stored up?’ (Luke 12: 20).
Our fourth struggle is against the demon of anger. We must, with God’s help, eradicate his deadly poison from the depths of our souls. So long as he dwells in our hearts and blinds the eyes of the heart with his somber disorders, we can neither discriminate what is for our good, nor achieve spiritual knowledge, nor fulfill our good intentions, nor participate in true life: and our intellect will remain impervious to the contemplation of the true, divine light; for it is written, ‘For my eye is troubled because of anger’ (Psalms 6:7. LXX).
Nor will we share in divine wisdom even though We are deemed wise by all men, for it is written: ‘Anger lodges in the bosom of fools’ (Eccles. 7:9). Nor can we discriminate in decisions affecting our salvation even though we are thought by our fellow men to have good sense, for it is written: ‘Anger destroys even men of good sense’ (Proverbs 15:1. LXX). Nor will we be able to keep our lives in righteousness with a watchful heart, for it is written; ‘Man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness of God’ (James i: 20). Nor will we be able to acquire the decorum and dignity praised by all, for it is written: ‘An angry man is not dignified’ (Proverbs 11: 25. LXX).
If, therefore, you desire to attain perfection and rightly to pursue the spiritual way, you should make yourself a stranger to all sinful anger and wrath. Listen to what St Paul enjoins: ‘Rid yourselves of all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, evil speaking and all malice’ (Ephesians 4:31). In saying ‘all’ he leaves no excuse for regarding any anger as necessary or reasonable. If you want to correct your brother when he is doing wrong or to punish him, you must try to keep yourself calm; otherwise you yourself may catch the sickness you are seeking to cure and you may find that the words of the Gospel now apply to you: ‘Physician, heal yourself (Luke 4:23), or ‘Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye, and not notice the rafter in your own eye?’ (Matthew 7:3).
No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul’s eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of righteousness. Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes, obstruct the sight equally, for the value of the gold does not affect the blindness it produces. Similarly, anger, whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision. Our incensive power can be Used in a way that is according to nature only when turned against our own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts. This is what the Prophet teaches us when he says: ‘Be angry, and do not sin’ (Psalms 4:4. LXX) - that is, be angry with your own passions and with your malicious thoughts, and do not sin by carrying out their suggestions. What follows clearly confirms this interpretation: ‘As you lie in bed, repent of what you say in your heart’ (Psalms 4:4. LXX) - that is, when malicious thoughts enter your heart, expel them with anger, and then turn to compunction and repentance as if your soul were resting in a bed of stillness.
St Paul agrees with this when he cites this passage and then adds: ‘Do not let the sun go down upon your anger: and do not make room for the devil’ (Ephesians 4:26-27), by which he means: ‘Do not make Christ, the Sun of righteousness, set in your hearts by angering him through your assent to evil thoughts, thereby allowing the devil to find room in you because of Christ’s departure.’ God has spoken of this Sun in the words of His prophet: ‘But upon you that fear My name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in His wings’ (Malachi 4:2). If we take Paul’s saying literally, it does not permit us to keep our anger even until sunset. What then shall we say about those who, because of the harshness and fury of their impassioned state, not only maintain their anger until the setting of this day’s sun, but prolong it for many days? Or about others who do not express their anger, but keep silent and increase the poison of their rancor to their own destruction? They are unaware that we must avoid anger not only in what we do but also in our thoughts: otherwise our intellect will be darkened by our rancor, cut off from the light of spiritual knowledge and discrimination, and deprived of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
It is for this reason that the Lord commands us to leave our offering before the altar and be reconciled with our brother (cf Matt, s: 23-24), since our offering will not be acceptable so long as anger and rancor are bottled up within us. The Apostle teaches us the same thing when he tells us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and to ‘pray every where, lifting up holy hands without anger and without quarreling’ (1 Tim. 2:8). We are thus left with the choice either of never praying, and so of disobeying the Apostle’s commandment, or of trying earnestly to fulfill his commandment by praying without anger or rancor.
We are often indifferent to our brethren who are distressed or upset, on the grounds that they are in this state through no fault of ours. The Doctor of souls, however, wishing to root out the soul’s excuses from the heart, tells us to leave our gift and to be reconciled not only if we happen to be upset by our brother, but also if he is upset by us, whether justly or unjustly: only when we have healed the breach through our apology should we offer our gift.
We may find the same teaching in the Old Testament as well. As though in complete agreement with the Gospels, it says: ‘Do not hate your brother in your heart’ (Lev. 19:17); and: “The way of the rancorous leads to death’ (Proverbs 12: 28. LXX). These passages, then, not only forbid anger in what we do but also angry thought. If therefore we are to follow the divine laws, we must struggle with all our strength against the demon of anger and against the sickness which lies hidden within us. When we are angry with others we should not seek solitude on the grounds that there, at least, no one will provoke us to anger, and that in solitude the virtue of long-suffering can easily be acquired. Our desire to leave our brethren is because of our pride,and because we do not wish to blame ourselves and ascribe to our own laxity the cause of our unruliness. So long as we assign the causes for our weaknesses to others, we cannot attain perfection in long-suffering.
Self-reform and peace are not achieved through the patience which others show us, but through our own long-suffering towards our neighbor. When we try to escape the struggle for long-suffering by retreating into solitude, those unhealed passions we take there with us are merely hidden, not erased: for unless our passions are first purged, solitude and withdrawal from the world not only foster them but also keep them concealed, no longer allowing us to perceive what passion it is that enslaves us. On the contrary, they impose on us an illusion of virtue and persuade us to believe that we have achieved long-suffering and humility, because there is no one present to provoke and test us.
But as soon as something happens which does arouse and challenge us, our hidden and previously unnoticed passions immediately break out like uncontrolled horses that have long been kept unexercised and idle, dragging their driver all the more violently and wildly to destruction. Our passions grow fiercer when left idle through lack of contact with other people. Even that shadow of patience and long-suffering which we thought we possessed while we mixed with our brethren is lost in our isolation through not being exercised. Poisonous creatures that live quietly in their lairs in the desert display their fury only when they detect someone approaching, and likewise passion-filled men, who live quietly not because of their virtuous disposition but because of their solitude, spit forth their venom whenever someone approaches and provokes them. This is why those seeking perfect gentleness must make every effort to avoid anger not only towards men, but also towards animals and even inanimate objects.
I can remember how, when I lived in the desert, I became angry with the rushes because they were either too thick or too thin; or with a piece of wood, when I wished to cut it quickly and could not; or with a flint, when I was in a hurry to light a fire and the spark would not come. So all-embracing was my anger that it was aroused even against inanimate objects.
If then we wish to receive the Lord’s blessing we should restrain not only the outward expression of anger, but also angry thoughts. More beneficial than controlling our tongue m a moment of anger and refraining from angry words is purifying our heart from rancor and not harboring malicious thoughts against our brethren. The Gospel teaches us to cut off the roots of our sins and not merely their fruits. When we have dug the root of anger out of our heart, we will no longer act with hatred or envy. ‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer’ (1 John 3:15), for he kills him with the hatred in his mind. The blood of a man who has been slain by the sword can be seen by men, but blood shed by the hatred in the mind is seen by God, who rewards each man with punishment or a crown not only for his acts but for his thoughts and intentions as well.
As God Himself says through the Prophet: ‘Behold, I am coming to reward them according to their actions and their thoughts’ (Ecclus. 35:19); and the Apostle says: ‘And their thoughts accuse or else excuse them in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men’ (Romans 2:15-16). The Lord Himself teaches us to put aside all anger when He says: ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment’ (Matthew 5:22). This is the text of the best manuscripts; for it is clear from the purpose of Scripture in this context that the words ‘without a cause’ were added later. The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incensive power is totally out of control.
The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust. When the demon of anger has darkened our mind, we are left with neither the light of discrimination, nor the assurance of true judgment, nor the guidance of righteousness, and our soul cannot become the temple of the Holy Spirit. Finally, we should always bear in mind our ignorance of the time of our death, keeping ourselves from anger and recognizing that neither self-restraint nor the renunciation of all material things, nor fasting and vigils, are of any benefit if we are found guilty at the last judgment because we are the slaves of anger and hatred.
Our fifth struggle is against the demon of dejection, who obscures the soul’s capacity for spiritual contemplation and keeps it from all good works. When this malicious demon seizes our soul and darkens it completely, he prevents us from praying gladly, from reading Holy Scripture with profit and perseverance, and from being gentle and compassionate towards our brethren. He instills a hatred of every kind of work and even of the monastic profession itself. Undermining all the soul’s salutary resolutions, weakening its persistence and constancy, he leaves it senseless and paralyzed, tied and bound by its despairing thoughts.
If our purpose is to fight the spiritual fight and to defeat, with God’s help, the demons of malice, we should take every care to guard our heart from the demon of dejection, just as a moth devours clothing and a worm devours wood, so dejection devours a man’s soul. It persuades him to shun every helpful encounter and stops him accepting advice from his true friends or giving them a courteous and peaceful reply. Seizing the entire soul, it fills it with bitterness and listlessness. Then it suggests to the soul that we should go away from other people, since they are the cause of its agitation. It does not allow the soul to understand that its sickness does not come from without, but lies hidden within, only manifesting itself when temptations attack the soul because of our ascetic efforts.
A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. It is for this reason that God, the Creator of all and the Doctor of men’s souls, who alone has accurate knowledge of the soul’s wounds, does not tell us to forsake the company of men: He tells us to root out the causes of evil within us and to recognize that the soul’s health is achieved not by a man’s separating himself from his fellows, but by his living the ascetic life in the company of holy men. When we abandon our brothers for some apparently good reason, we do not eradicate the motives for dejection but merely exchange them, since the sickness which lies hidden within us will show itself again in other circumstances.
Thus it is clear that our whole fight is against the passions within. Once these have been extirpated from our heart by the grace and help of God, we will readily be able to live not simply with other men, but even with wild beasts, job confirms this when he says:
‘And the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you’ (Job 5:23). But first we must struggle with the demon of dejection who casts the soul into despair. We must drive him from our heart. It was this demon that did not allow Cain to repent after he had killed his brother, or Judas after he had betrayed his Master. The only form of dejection we should cultivate is the sorrow which goes with repentance for sin and is accompanied by hope in God. It was of this form of dejection that the Apostle said: ‘Godly sorrow produces a saving repentance which is not to be repented of (2 Corinthians 7:10). This ‘godly sorrow’ nourishes the soul through the hope engendered by repentance, and it is mingled with joy.
That is why it makes us obedient and eager for every good work: accessible, humble, gentle, forbearing and patient in enduring all the suffering or tribulation God may send us. Possession of these qualities shows that a man enjoys the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, goodness, faith, self-control (Gal. 5:11). But from the other kind of dejection we come to know the fruits of the evil spirit: listlessness, impatience, anger, hatred, contentiousness, despair, sluggishness in praying. So we should shun this second form of dejection as we would unchastity, avarice, anger and the rest of the passions. It can be healed by prayer, hope in God, meditation on Holy Scripture, and by living with godly people.
Our sixth struggle is against the demon of listlessness, who works hand in hand with the demon of dejection. This is a harsh, terrible demon, always attacking the monk, falling upon him at the sixth hour (mid-day), making him slack and fall of fear, inspiring him with hatred for his monastery, his fellow monks, for work of any kind, and even for the reading of Holy Scripture. He suggests to the monk that he should go elsewhere and that, if he does not, all his effort and time will be wasted. In addition to all this, tie produces in him at around the sixth hour a hunger such as he would not normally have after fasting for three days, or after a long journey or the heaviest labor. Then he makes him think that he will not be able to rid himself of this grievous sickness, except by sallying forth frequently to visit his brethren, ostensibly to help them and to tend them if they are unwell. When he cannot lead him astray in this manner, he puts him into the deepest sleep.
In short, his attacks become stronger and more violent, and he cannot be beaten off except through prayer, through avoiding useless speech, through the study of the Holy Scriptures and through patience in the face of temptation. If he finds a monk unprotected by these weapons, he strikes him down with his arrows, making him a wayward and lazy wanderer, who roams idly from monastery to monastery, thinking only of where he can get something to eat and drink. The mind of someone affected by listlessness is filled with nothing but vain distraction. Finally he is ensnared in worldly things and gradually becomes so grievously caught up in them that he abandons the monastic life altogether.
The Apostle, who knows that this sickness is indeed serious, and wishes to eradicate it from our soul, indicates its main causes and says: ‘Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to withdraw yourselves from every brother who lives in an unruly manner and not according to the tradition which you have received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us: for we ourselves did not behave in an unruly manner when among you, nor did we eat any man’s bread as a free gift; but we toiled strenuously night and day so that we might not be a burden to any of you: not because we do not have the right, but so as to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you instructions that if anyone refuses to work he should have nothing to eat. For we hear that there are some among you who live in an unruly manner, not working at all, but simply being busybodies.
Now we instruct such people and exhort them by our Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own bread’ (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12). We should note how clearly the Apostle describes the causes of listlessness. Those who do not work he calls unruly, expressing a multiplicity of faults in this one word. For the unruly man, is lacking in reverence, impulsive in speech, quick, to abuse, and so unfit for stillness. He is a slave to listlessness. Paul therefore tells us to avoid such a person, that is, to isolate ourselves from him as from a plague. With the words ‘and not according to the tradition which you have received from us he makes it clear that they are arrogant and that they destroy the apostolic traditions. Again he says: ‘nor did we eat any man’s bread as a free gift; but we toiled strenuously night and day’. The teacher of the nations, the herald of the Gospel, who was raised to the third heaven, who says that the Lord ordained that ‘those who preach the Gospel should live by the Gospel’ (I Corinthians 9:14) - this same man works night and day ‘so that we might not be a burden to any of you’.
What then can be said of us, who are listless about our work and physically lazy - we who have not been entrusted with the proclamation of the Gospel or the care of the churches, but merely with looking after our own soul? Next Paul shows more clearly the harm born of laziness by adding: ‘not working at all, but simply being busybodies’; for from laziness comes inquisitiveness, and from inquisitiveness, unruliness, and from unruliness, every kind of evil. He provides a remedy, however, with the words: ‘Now we instruct such people … to work quietly and to eat their own bread ’ But with even greater emphasis, he says: ‘if anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’.
The holy fathers of Egypt, who were brought up on the basis of these apostolic commandments, do not allow monks to be without work at any time, especially while they are young. They know that by persevering in work monks dispel listlessness, provide for their own sustenance and help those who are in need. They not only work for their own requirements, but from their labor they also minister to their guests, to the poor and to those in prison, believing that such charity is a holy sacrifice acceptable to God. The fathers also say that as a rule someone who works is attacked and afflicted by but a single demon, while someone who does not work is taken prisoner by a thousand evil spirits.
It is also good to recall what Abba Moses, one of the most experienced of the fathers, told me. I had not been living long in the desert when I was troubled by listlessness. So I went to him and said: ‘Yesterday I was greatly troubled and weakened by listlessness, and I was not able to free myself from it until I went to see Abba Paul’ Abba Moses replied to me by saying: ‘So far from freeing yourself from it, you have surrendered to it completely and become its slave.
You must realize that it will attack all the more severely because you have deserted your post, unless from now on you strive to subdue it through patience, prayer and manual labor.’
Our seventh struggle is against the demon of self-esteem, a multiform and subtle passion which is not readily perceived even by the person whom it tempts. The provocations of the other passions are more apparent and it is therefore somewhat easier to do battle with them, for the soul recognizes its enemy and can repulse him at once by rebutting him and by prayer. The vice of self-esteem, however, is difficult to fight against, because it has many forms and appears in all our activities - in our way of speaking, in what we say and in our silences, at work, in vigils and fasts, in prayer and reading, in stillness and long-suffering. Through all these it seeks to strike down the soldier of Christ. When it cannot seduce a man with extravagant clothes, it tries to tempt him by means of shabby ones. When it cannot flatter him with honor, it inflates him by causing him to endure what seems to be dishonor. When it cannot persuade him to feel proud of his display of eloquence, it entices him through silence into thinking he has achieved stillness. When it cannot puff him up with the thought of his luxurious table, it lures him into fasting for the sake of praise.
In short, every task, every activity, gives this malicious demon a chance for battle. He even prompts us to imagine we are priests. I remember a certain elder who, while I was staying in Sketis, went to visit a brother in his cell. When he approached his door, he heard him speaking inside: thinking that he was studying the Scriptures, he stood outside listening, only to realize that self-esteem had driven the man out of his mind and that he was ordaining himself deacon and dismissing the catechumens. When the elder heard this, he pushed open the door and went in.
The brother came to greet him, bowed as is the custom, and asked him if he had been standing at the door for a long time. The elder replied with a smile: ‘I arrived a moment ago, just when you were finishing the dismissal of the catechumens/ When the brother heard this, he fell at the feet of the elder and begged him to pray for him so that he would be freed from this delusion. I have recalled this incident because I want to show to what depths of stupidity this demon can bring us.
The person who wants to engage fully in spiritual combat and to win the crown of righteousness must try by every means to overcome this beast that assumes such varied forms. He should always keep in mind the words of David: ‘The Lord has scattered the bones of those who please men’ (Psalms 53:5. LXX). He should not do anything with a view to being praised by other people, but should seek God’s reward only, always rejecting the thoughts of self-praise that enter his heart, and always regarding himself as nothing before God. In this way he will be freed, with God’s help, from the demon of self-esteem.
Our eighth struggle is against the demon of pride, a most sinister demon, fiercer than all that have been discussed up till now. He attacks the perfect above all and seeks to destroy those who have mounted almost to the heights of holiness. Just as a deadly plague destroys not just one member of the body, but the whole of it, so pride corrupts the whole soul, not just part of it. Each of the other passions that trouble the soul attacks and tries to overcome the single virtue which is opposed to it, and so it darkens and troubles the soul only partially. But the passion of pride darkens the soul completely and leads to its utter downfall.
In order to understand more fully what is meant by this, we should look at the problem in the following way. Gluttony tries to destroy self-control; unchastity, moderation; avarice, voluntary poverty; anger, gentleness; and the other forms of vice, their corresponding virtues. But when the vice of pride has become master of our wretched soul, it acts like some harsh tyrant who has gained control of a great city, and destroys it completely, razing it to its foundations. The angel who fell from heaven because of his pride bears witness to this. He had been created by God and adorned with every virtue and all wisdom, but he did not want to ascribe this to the grace of the Lord. He ascribed it to his own nature and as a result regarded himself as equal to God.
The prophet rebukes this claim when he says: ‘You have said in your heart: “I will sit on a high mountain; I will place my throne upon the clouds and I will be like the Most High.” Yet you are a man, and not God’ (cf Isa. 14:13-14). And again, another prophet says, ‘Why do you boast of your wickedness, 0 mighty man?’ and he continues in this same vein (Psalms 52:1). Since we are aware of this we should feel fear and guard our hearts with extreme care from the deadly spirit of pride. When we have attained some degree of holiness we should always repeat to ourselves the words of the Apostle: “Yet not 1, but the grace of God which was with me’ (1 Corinthians 15:10), as well as what was said by the Lord:
‘Without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). We should also bear in mind what the prophet said: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it’ (Psalms 127:1), and finally: ‘It does not depend on-man’s will or effort, but on God’s mercy’ (Romans 9:16).
Even if someone is sedulous, serious and resolute, he cannot, so long as he is bound to flesh and blood, approach perfection except through the mercy and grace of Christ. James himself says that ‘every good gift is from above’ James 1:17), while the Apostle Paul asks: ‘What do you have which you did not receive? Now if you received it, why do you boast, as if you had not received it?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7). What right, then, has man to be proud as though he could achieve perfection through his own efforts ?
The thief who received the kingdom of heaven, though not as the reward of virtue, is a true witness to the fact that salvation is ours through the grace and mercy of God. All of our holy fathers knew this and all with one accord teach that perfection in holiness can be achieved only through humility. Humility, in its turn, can be achieved only through faith, fear of God, gentleness and the shedding of all possessions. It is by means of these that we attain perfect love, through the grace and compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory through all the ages. Amen.