Here are quotes or excerpts from letters from two elders from Valaam Monastery, Elder Sergei and Abbot John. They are rich with practical advice on how to live an Orthodox life.
To Have Christ in Us is a Great Mystery
Archimandrite Sergei (Chevitch)
The fear of God is the fear of being separated from God.
We shouldn’t strive to penetrate Divine mysteries with our minds. We must accept the mystery. It won’t be revealed to us until we accept it as such.
In order to receive something from God we need to ask Him with humility and not judge anyone.
We should try and think less of ourselves and think more about God all the time.
We must love God and not just comprehend and know Him.
We should treasure a sense of mystery towards God. I am pleased when I don’t know.
Christ became Man, for the human nature was the only place where man and God could meet. Otherwise he would have been scorced by God, as was Moses on Mount Sinai.
Perfection is not the perfection of man but that of God in man.
On relations with our neighbors
The truth and all that is related to it should never be compromised, but we should be extremely tolerant of people who sin and err. We must respect people more than they seemingly deserve it.
Self-obsession is the beginning of a mental illness. The foundation of mental illness is putting yourself at the center of the universe.
What really matters is love. The apostle Paul said: And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing(1 Cor. 13:2). The demons are able to fathom and comprehend just as we are, but they cannot love.
If we want to deepen our relations with other people, we need to pray for them. We should also pray before telling them anything. It is thanks to our prayer that we will understand what we should say and what we shouldn’t say to them.
All that concerns love for our neighbors is based on prayer for our neighbors.
Humility is the shortest path to salvation, without which everything collapses. True knowledge is not attained by mental exertion, nor even by an act of thinking. True knowledge is acquired through humility.
We should be humble for God’s sake. If people make use of and abuse our humility, then nevermind. People abused the humility of many saints. We shouldn’t worry about that: All that matters is our state before God.
We should seek humility and not holiness, because holiness without humility is nothing but vanity.
Humility is the basis of the spiritual life and, at the same time, like love, it is its summit.
We should offer repentance permanently, not for something wrong that we have done, but because of the fact that our nature is weak. We must repent of being what we are.
When we repent we should take into account not only the bad deeds we have done but also all the good things we have not done.
God prefers him who commits sins and repents to him who believes that he has no sins and thus doesn’t repent.
Repentance is the key to the spiritual life. It allows us to put on the wedding robes without which we will be thrown out.
Repentance is not just an act associated with one or another sin that has been done once; rather, it is a permanent, ongoing state.
As soon as we have plunged into a bad mood, we need to ask for God’s forgiveness.
Prayer is the language of the world to come.
We should pray unceasingly. Prayer is both the nourishment and life of the soul. Without prayer, the soul withers and dies.
The strength to resist sin comes from God, and we get this strength through prayer. If we cannot pray during every kind of work, then at least we must do all our work in the spirit of prayer.
Prayer should necessarily be regular. Prayer eventually penetrates our souls just as drops of water wear away the stone onto which they drop over and over again. We shouldn’t devote one or two moments of the day to prayer. Prayer must be the driving force of our entire lives. We should learn not to do anything without prayer.
The Jesus Prayer without humility is a catastrophe.
What is of prime importance in prayer is the spiritual impulse. Prayer should be accompanied by repentance. Christ came to this world to teach us repentance, not technique.
Prayer is like a light that illuminates everything around and that enables us to examine the depths of our souls closely.
Prayers for the departed are very important to them and us alike. At the same time, it is the expression of our belief that there is no death.
On spiritual life
Spiritual growth manifests itself in the abandonment of worldly cares with determination rather than in brilliant acquisitions.
External circumstances can never be used to justify the defects of the inner life. Our life is in Heaven—our true life. And we must live by this already here on earth.
People are not expected to “take leaps.” They need to walk towards God gradually but with consistency. The “middle path” is the royal path.
Patience is absolutely necessary in the spiritual life. It is born from humility.
A rule for life: Pray more and deliberate less.
We should beware of extremes in the ascetic life. We need to keep fit not only spiritually, but also physically. The flesh should be strengthened and not mortified. Christ Himself took care of His body: He ate and slept.
We should take care to constantly concern ourselves with the things that have to do with God and not with ourselves.
The only thing we should seek is that the Lord would look down on us in His mercy and accept us.
We must live in God and not in ourselves. Being self-content is very dangerous.
We must love the Heavenly world and seek it whatever the cost—the world above and not this physical world, which is too fragile and unstable.
The great mystery of spiritual life is that we act by the power of God and not our own. To have Christ in us is a great mystery.
We should care about the destiny of our souls upon separation from the flesh and not the destiny of the entire world; about our own end and not the end of the world; about our own destiny and not the destiny of the whole of society.
We should always feel as someone who is waiting for a train feels, knowing that the train may arrive at any tick of the clock.
We are in this world to endure hardships.
We should live through every day as if it were the last. For all that, we shouldn’t say that one day doesn’t matter. If the words of the apostle that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years (2 Pet. 3:8) are true, then it is also true that every single day is as important as a thousand years.
The purpose of the struggle is not to cease the struggle one day. The warfare will go on forever. But the longer we struggle, the greater our chances of winning a victory in this battle.
From the Letters of a Valaam Elder
The spiritual life is like bodily growth: The man himself doesn’t notice it. However, a sign of spirituality is … when someone sees his sins like the sand of the sea. In this is the health of the soul.
If you strictly look after yourself, you will truly see yourself as worse than all, then those praising you won’t hurt you; because people only look at a person’s external appearance, but inwardly they do not know him.
We should strive for virtue as far as our strength will allow, but to stand firm in virtue is not within our power, but within the Lord’s, and the Lord preserves us not for our labors, but for humility.
There is no such commandment to demand love and a proper life from others. Let those who are appointed by Divine providence take care of others.
Sin is never satisfied; the more you feed it, the more food it requires.
There are two benefits from sorrow: The first is zeal for God and gratitude from the whole heart; the second is that it delivers from vain cares and worries.
Without prayer, life will be filled with much sighing, but when you acquire the skill of prayer, the heart will rejoice and be at peace—a blessed state. The labor should be ours, but success depends on grace; grace is given not for labors but for humility—as much as a man humbles himself, so much does grace come.
If you find someone of the same spirit, then talk and consult with him—this is the best method in our time. An inexperienced leader can only harm the spiritual cause—there were many such cases in former times and in ours.
It is most useful to see everyone as good, and yourself as worse than all.
If you happen to falter in virtue—do not tremble, for our nature is very changeable. Only angels inherently stand invariably in virtue.
The spiritual life is like a tree, the Holy Fathers say: Without leaves—that is, without labors—there will be no fruit, and, a tree without fruit is hewn down.
We must work towards pleasing God according to our own free will, then grace will help us. But if we do not labor, then the grace of God will not help; our labor and the grace of God go together.
Although it’s somewhat hard to endure grief, it’s very useful. We must prepare, with God’s help, to endure vilification, reproach, contempt, and ridicule. If we prepare ourselves, it will be easier to endure them when they come.
We needn’t fear infirmities, for the Lord descended from Heaven for the infirm. If a man is aware of his infirmities and repents, the Lord, in His goodness, will not remember his infirmities and sins. Above all, we must fear demonic pride, vanity, enmity, and condemnation; but infirmities humble our supposed piety.
When you say something for the good of another’s soul—speak simply. You don’t need to think about how to influence him. The grace of God will do this beyond our desire, if only it will be for the benefit of the one listening.
In all perplexing questions, take as a rule the advice of the divinely-wise Holy Fathers: If two evils stand before you, choose the lesser, and if two virtues, choose the greater.
Temporary solitude is good, for it calms the soul a bit from various vanities. But to live in solitude… It does not cure the passions, but only lulls them. If you live attentively among people, you will more quickly come to self-awareness, for there are many terrible things there that uncover your rot.
If something human happens, we have to remember that we are not wiser than the all-wise Solomon, not stronger than the Prophet David, and not more zealous than the Apostle Peter.
Build yourself a home and take no care for that of others, then you will know how to build homes for others.
Knowledge without spiritual experience only puffs up.
Holy Scripture should be read not for knowledge, but in order to save our souls.
Don’t get excited to jump high—the spiritual life demands patient gradualism.
Reproach is very useful, and praise is very harmful, for by it we are tripped up in the spiritual life. Vainglory greatly binds us and weakens our free will.
Silver is known by its standard, but asceticism by humility.
We must deeply believe in God’s providence and not seek out the reasons why this or that thing happens to us.
We should do everything for the sake of God, and not pay any attention to people, for people praise today and tomorrow overthrow.
It is man’s characteristic to fall, and the devil’s to not repent.
Only the holy angels live without variation, constantly glorifying the Lord. But we must endure. During a difficult experience—wait for joy, and during joy—wait for sorrow.
To live together and have peace of mind requires patience and humility, but as we do not have these virtues, we think to ourselves: Everyone else is to blame, not me. However, we must try to at least not be angry for a long time, otherwise we won’t be able to benefit from prayer.
If a man internalizes the remembrance of death, then he will have the correct view of his temporary, fleeting life.
Sicknesses and sorrows are not accidental phenomena, but sent by God for our benefit. They can be called wedding clothes, in which we can enter into the eternal marriage chamber.
It is very difficult to yield to another—only great souls can do it, but the weak firmly insist upon their own will.
Pride is to see only the good within yourself and only the bad in others, but humility is to see your own sins and good qualities in others.
Of course, bodily labor is necessary, for without it there will be no fruits. But know that not all bodily labors are virtues, but a guidebook towards virtues.
Many have labored hard but not received any fruits, for their labors were purely external, killing the spirit.
We must not trust ourselves until we’re lying in a coffin. Standing firm in virtues does not depend on us but on the grace of God. The Lord preserves us for our humility: As much as a man humbles himself, so much does he succeed in the spiritual life.
Humanity is in turmoil, and poor people do not know the secret of inner peace; they don’t know how to acquire it. Here is the secret: Do not interfere in anybody else’s affairs and take no notice of the weaknesses of others. Know only yourself, and that’s enough. If you do this, believe me, you will always be peaceful.
This life is temporary and filled with various sorrows, and no one can avoid them—only their sorrows may differ. And as the soul is created according to the image and likeness of God, it will nowhere and never find peace and consolation, except in God. If we orient ourselves on the will of God, then sorrows will trouble us only slightly.
Know for sure that the thoughts that bring peace of mind and tenderness are angelic, while the thoughts that bring confusion and disorder are demonic.
Humanity invented politeness instead of love, and under this politeness hides vanity, hypocrisy, cunning, anger, and the other passions of the soul.
He who condemns others is like the antichrist, for he tries to purloin God’s judgment.
As far as the heart is cleansed from passions, so far is God known and the Kingdom of God will be within you.