Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Elder Ephraim Of Arizona-On Contemplation

          Chapter Sixteen-On Contemplation.

“A nous that has ceased to contemplate God becomes either carnal or savage” (cf. St. Mark the Ascetic, The Philokalia, vol. I, p. 132 ). In other words, when the mind of man strays from the various ways of contemplating God—that is, praying, meditating on spiritual contemplations such as hell, paradise, one’s sins, one’s passions, the countless benefactions of the Lord which He bestows upon each of us in a wondrous manner, and so forth—then evil demons come and fill him with their own contemplations which lead him into the mire of carnal, passionate sins, or into the sins of wrath and anger! When the mind does not contemplate salvific thoughts—except for thoughts necessary for the sustenance of life—it will be obsessed with sinful contemplations, and then it will be either carnal or savage! Let us then, my children, pay close attention to what we are thinking, so that we do not let our mind slip into passionate, sinful thoughts, because this is a very serious sin with grave consequences. Be careful with your imagination. Do not let your mind accept fantasies of people and sinful images that carnally scandalize you or lead you to wrath and anger! Rather, see to it that with every good effort you keep your mind pure of such fantasies, so that being free and pure of such things, it will be able henceforth to pray constantly and have godly contemplations. Through them it will be made spiritual and make heavenly ascents towards the soul’s sanctification.

2. Fear of God is necessary. “I beheld the Lord ever before me… so that I not be shaken” (Ps. 15:8 ). One must remember that God is everywhere present and fills all things; we must remember that we breathe God, we eat God, we wear God, and that we have God within our heart and nous. God knows our thoughts, our recollections, our words, our deeds, our intentions. Nothing escapes His all-seeing eye—not only present things, but even past and future events; not only those of men alive now, but of all men from Adam until the last man before the end of the world. Man is unable to do anything without God knowing, since everything is done before His eyes. When a person meditates upon and contemplates all these things, he feels sharp pangs of conscience for his transgressions and weaknesses. A genuine fear of God overcomes him, and he tries to change his life and conform it to the divine commandments. By meditating upon these things, he feels the presence of God, which previously had escaped his notice due to his ignorance. A genuine fear guides him to clean the inside of the cup, as the Lord has said (vid. Mt. 23:26 )—not saying one thing with the mouth and another in the heart. By meditating upon these things, his conscience awakens, and at the slightest thing, it cries out through the voice of censure. He then acquires keenness in the spiritual life: his spiritual eyes are opened, and he sees clearly what is lurking within him. He prays fervently to God: “From my secret sins cleanse me, and from those of others spare Thy servant” (Ps. 18:13 ).

3. It is not so easy for the demons to harm a person who keeps the constant remembrance of God in his soul. They can tempt him, but it is difficult for them to harm him. This is because he does not permit them to trip him up, for he is armed with the weapon of the constant remembrance of God. Whoever has his soul’s eyes open and sees God is not easily harmed by the enemies. The very spiritual men of old did not need spiritual books. They did not have such a great need to read many patristic books, because they constantly meditated upon things about God. Whatever they saw immediately gave them an opportunity to meditate upon something, to discover something unknown. All of creation was a university for them. Wherever they turned their eyes, they saw something to meditate upon—sometimes the providence of God, other times His wisdom; sometimes His judgment, other times His teachings, and so on. With the eyes of their soul they saw invisible things. Meditating upon them filled their hearts with spiritual knowledge. We people of today—since we do not have the eyes of our soul open—do not have the ability to remain in the spiritual meditation. Even when we do see something, we need religious books to know something about God. The minds of these spiritual men were so strong that they could conceive thoughts and ideas with deep wisdom. Our minds are so weak that they can barely retain anything. The Fathers then were, for the most part, simple people; yet, they acquired full knowledge, because the Holy Spirit helped them understand the Scriptures. The remembrance of God is an all-powerful weapon, a mighty suit of armor against Satan and the various sins. When the mind ceases to remember God and meditate upon divine things, man is overcome by negligence, indolence, forgetfulness, and then by evil desires!
If you see your mind rushing towards the world, know that your soul lacks divine consolation, which is why it turns to the world for consolation. When a person’s soul is warm towards God, he is enlightened and feels compunction, and it is impossible for his mind to incline towards the world at the same time. The soul inclines towards the world when it is not united, in a sense, with God. The mind is an area, a place. If God does not occupy it, then the enemy will occupy it. This place cannot remain empty, having neither God nor evil, sin, temptation, or the activity of Satan. The mind is like a mill that is turning. Whatever is thrown into the funnel, which leads to the nillstones below, will come out as flour of that type. If you throw wheat in, you will get wheat flour. If you throw thorns in, you will get thorn flour—a harmful substance. The mill is always turning; the mind of man is always working—like a mill. Do you want to have good results? Put good material into the mill. Do you want to find compunction, tears, joy, peace, etc.? Put good thoughts into the mill of your mind—for example, thoughts about the soul, about the Judgment, the remembrance of death, and so on—and then you will get corresponding spiritual results! But if a person puts sinful thoughts into the mill of his mind, he will definitely have sin as a result. The material that will be given to the mind depends on the intentions of man. And these intentions will be either commended or censured. We should always strive to have salvific thoughts and beneficial images in our mind, so that we do not leave room for Satan to throw in his garbage—sinful thoughts and fantasies!

4. Progress in prayer brings us to theoria, and we may even see indescribable things. It brings us to the Last Judgment, to paradise, to the sight of hell, before the throne of God, to heavenly light, and so forth. One might begin chanting and then stop at a point, and be overcome by the meaning of the words chanted. He might start reading something from The Song of Songs, and then stop somewhere, and the theoria may widen and end up wherever God leads it. One might be reading the gospel about the Passion of Christ, and then stop at a point—for example, at His arrest, His suffering, His crucifixion, His resurrection, etc.—and contemplate it with feeling, compunction, and self-reproach. Sometimes we might be fathoming the Judgment, thinking for example, “If I die now, how shall I present myself to God? What will the decision be for me? Shall I be damned, perhaps? How shall I pass the toll-houses? Other times we might be contemplating the Panagia, her glory, her virginity, etc., or contemplating the saints, and so on.

5. “When Thou openest Thy hand, all things will be filled with goodness; when Thou turnest away Thy face, they will be troubled” (Ps. 103:28-29 ). Our all-good and munificent God created two worlds. First He made the spiritual world in the heavenly realm with the orders of the innumerable angels, the countless host of these ministering spirits, with many “mansions” (cf. Jn. 14:2 ), and various dwellings. Then He made this tangible world with man as the crown of His divine wisdom, and He commanded him to reign and exercise dominion over everything therein. The goodness of the all-good God inundated the heavenly realm with holy angels, and due to the extreme bliss, they chanted and incessantly hymned with ceaseless doxologies, thanking in this way the eternal goodness and compassion of our holy God, Who blessed them with such honor and glory and delight! But alas! The first of the angels, called Lucifer, revolted and rebelled against God. He wanted, desired, wished for equality with God. “I shall ascend above the clouds”, he said in his heart, “and be like the Most High” (Is. 14:14 ). As soon as he consented to this blasphemous and proud thought, the just God turned His sweet, beautiful, divine face away, and immediately with a most frightful crash, Lucifer fell down from his lofty position and rank, and was bound with unbreakable bonds in the gloom of Hades, dragging along with him the entire order which had followed his most evil will! These events took place in the heavenly realm. Now, here I come, the ignorant and wretched one, to recount and briefly set forth the point and significance for man of the psalmic verse, “When Thou openest Thy hand, all things will be filled with goodness; when Thou turnest away Thy face, they will be troubled” (Ps. 103:28-29 ). So, once God created man with such wisdom, He bestowed upon him His image and likeness; He endowed him with reason and freedom; He made in the east the palace of exquisite paradise abounding in countless very fragrant flowers, plants, and trees varying in kind and fruit: “God made trees grow out of the earth”, say the Scriptures, “trees that were pleasing to the eyes and good for food” (Gen. 2:9 ). Furthermore, He enriched it with birds of various shapes and colors to fly and sing most sweetly. In addition, He placed the wild animals and the cattle in the plains as companions for Adam, and made a river to pass through the middle of Paradise and water it with brooks and streams of profuse, crystal-clear water to vitalize and feed the roots of the trees. He also made fresh air and fragrant breezes to bathe the face of the small god, man. In a word, the Scriptures tell us, “And God made… all the animals of the earth… and all the birds of the sky… and a river coming out of Eden to water Paradise” (Gen. 2:10 ).
This paradisiacal day bathed in sun was not followed by night. And behold, the goodness of our holy God dwelled and rested in the palace of the first-formed man. But who can truly describe the goodness and majesty of God, which His almighty right hand lavishly bestowed upon man? He honored him with His image and likeness; He made him immortal; He made him worthy of speaking with Him, so that by sweetly communicating with God and delighting in His infinite source of blessedness, he would be amazed at the riches of spiritual pleasure. Throughout his body and soul, dispassion reigned; nothing disturbed him; he ruled over everything; simplicity and innocence enriched his entire state. Everything was subject to him, as to their small god and king. His soul was adorned with virginal purity, which reflected on his exquisitely beautiful body, an original creation of the omnipotent hand of God. God’s supervision and goodness reigned over both this earthly king and his palace, as well as over all of creation. Everything had a divine hue, for man, too, kept the divine commandment. But alas and woe to me! How and from where shall I, the wretch, begin to recount with lamentation the terrible storm that broke out when God turned His face away? With what words and with how much mourning shall I declaim the miserable plight and tragic fall of man from the delight of Paradise—he who was so honored yet so ungrateful? Who could ever honestly grasp in its entirety the tragedy of God turning away His face, of the exile of Adam, of the affliction of nature? Certainly, no one! And who can fathom the abyss of lamentation and inconsolable wailing of the miserable transgressor, sitting at the place of condemnation and gazing from afar at his lost palace? Adam was deceived by Lucifer, he voluntarily consented to proud thoughts; he, too, entertained fantasies of being equal to God! Adam transgressed the commandment, and the punishment of God fell upon him as a fearful tempest and changed the paradisiacal blessedness into a life full of misery and tears. The poor king of earth became proud, and behold, he was driven out of the exceedingly beautiful and delightful Paradise, from his splendid palace. And fallen thenceforth, he was exiled to the bitter earth, full of thorns and thistles, to work laboriously and eat the bread of pain in sweat, with a despairing and deeply sighing soul. “When Thou turnest away Thy face they will be troubled” (Ps. 103:29 ). Everything is troubled, all things lose their harmony and grace, they get out of order, they forget the joy of Paradise and fall into corruption. This holds true for all of nature, but especially for man. The ghastly face of accursed sin, which first appeared in Paradise, drove the sovereign out of his delight, once he himself approached it and was lured by it. Thus, from immortal, man became mortal, and from dispassionate, he became passionate! The elements, which were previously submissive and harmless, were altogether shaken at once and arose to destroy him, to mangle him; for they, too, were condemned along with him to the accursed earth. Earth groaned beneath the burden of transgressions that were committed on it, as it awaited with an intense desire and hope the revealing of the children of God so that it might be delivered from its bondage and glorified, as the divine Paul writes to the Romans (vid. Rom. 8:19-21 ). God turns away His face and everything changes. Right after the first fall a second one followed, when Cain killed Abel—that wicked fratricide—and thenceforth sin reigned. God turns away His face because of the impious deeds of men, and water floods the whole world, turning it into a horrifying tomb for the entire race of man, except for Noah and his family. God turns away His divine manifestation because of man’s lechery, and fire burns up the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, God turns away His face and His forbearance, and the proud Pharaoh is engulfed along with all his army, and the water of the sea becomes his eternal tomb. Time and again, moral evil and sin—as a transgression of the divine law—cause God to turn His face away from men, so that natural evil follows as an inevitable consequence, in the form of diseases, various afflictions, and ultimately—death. But when the munificent God opens the hand of His goodness, the heart of man becomes a royal palace! The luxuriousness of the royal majesty occupies the most prominent position within him. The royal servants serve their king as he sits upon his inconceivably resplendent and extraordinarily beautiful throne of grace. The royal guards, both those of the high throne and those of the gates, guard the king with vigilant attention! Everything bears witness to the wealth and magnitude of the king’s presence and favor. But who is this king, and who are the servants and his guards? The king? Who else could he be but He Who through holy baptism made the heart of man His own house, the kingdom of the heavens! As He Himself declared in His gospel: “The kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:21 ). The royal servants? They are the divine thoughts that minister to the grace of God so that the royal palace is decorated and so that the glory and comeliness of God shine in it! And who are the royal guards? They are watchfulness, attention, and the thoughts of divine zeal, through which the palace and the king are guarded! Then, goodness and sweet repose in God prevail in the realm of the heart. When, however, some of the royal guards neglect their duty, some give themselves over to gluttony and drinking, while others rush into licentiousness, and yet others betray the king to his enemies—then this good King, the grace of holy baptism, hides, leaves, and is no longer visible. Grace turns away its face from those servants and the palace, for the betrayal defiled it. Then—oh, then—the last state of that man is worse than the first. Then he becomes like him who goes down into the pit of the tomb, whose lot is an unbearable stench. This is why the psalmist prayed fervently, “Turn not Thy face away from me, lest I become like them that go down into the pit” (cf. Ps. 27:1 ). When youth is in the glory of its blossom, oh, how much beauty it has! It is so beautiful that some people do not differ from heavenly angels. But when the sharpened scythe of death strikes and reaps them, they have to be buried quickly, because there is an imminent danger of infection. They are hidden in frigid tombs, for soon a terrible stink will replace beautiful, fragrant youth! Something similar takes place with the soul of man. When man is pure of sins and attentive to himself, the grace of God reigns in him, divine goodness adorns him, and everyone delights at the very sight of such a person. But unfortunately, when man sins and does not repent, God turns away His divine eyes, and at once moral darkness overcomes his soul. Then he begins to work evil deeds, and the unclean demons defile that miserable soul more and more each day, and lower it from sin to sin and from passion to passion, thus rendering the soul so fetid that even the holy angels cannot tolerate the stench or stay beside him to help. Therefore, divine grace withdraws, and the putrefaction of sin begins its destructive work. Then the soul resembles a corpse that is tossed in the grave: if by chance it is opened shortly thereafter, the sight and stink of the worms, and its revolting condition in general, evoke horror. My dear children, let us say along with the Archangel of God who, wishing to prevent other heavenly angels from slipping perchance into Lucifer’s dark road of disobedience and pride, said: “Let us stand well”. Let us raise our soul every time it stoops, my beloved children. “Let us stand with fear”, for the gloomy tomb of sin opens its mouth menacingly, if we are not careful at every moment. But if we are careful, vigilant, and watchful, then by all means the open hand of the Ruler of All shall fill our heart with divine goodness, and He Himself shall visit the assiduously kept palace of our soul, so that it may taste in this life divine exultation and delight, followed, according to His promise, by the full rendering in His endless kingdom of the good things prepared as a reward since the foundation of the world for those who love and fulfill His commandments. Amen; so be it.

Source: "Counsels From the Holy Mountain"by Elder Ephraim of Arizona+Philotheou(Mount Athos)

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