The scripture speaks of the midwives who did not kill the children of Israel of the male sex, that as the midwives feared God, they established for themselves dwellings (Ex. 1:21). Are they tangible dwellings that are spoken of here? And what does it mean to build a house for oneself according to the fear of God? We do the contrary: we are taught to leave even those houses we already have for the sake of the fear of God. The scripture speaks here not of tangible dwellings but of the house of the soul, which a man builds for himself by observing God's commandments. The scripture thus instructs us that the fear of God motivates the soul to keep the commandments, and by means of the commandments the house of the soul is built. Let us also, brethren, be attentive to ourselves, let us also fear God, let us build for ourselves a house so as to find protection in wintertime, in the times of rains, thunder and lightning, because one who does not have a house endures great misfortune in time of winter.
How is the house of the soul built? We can learn this by observing how a material house is built. For he who wishes to build such a house must fortify all around by building walls on all four sides, and not concern himself with one side only, neglecting the other three. Otherwise he will derive no benefit at all, but will waste everything in vain—his intention, expense, and labor. So does it happen also with the soul: for a man who desires to build a house of the soul should not neglect a single wall of his building, but should erect it evenly and harmoniously. This is what is meant by what Abba John said, "I wish that a man would acquire a little of every virtue every day," and not hold to one virtue and abide in it, practicing it alone without any concern for the others, as some are wont to do. It may be also that they have this virtue by habit, or by their natural character, and therefore the passion which is opposed to it does not trouble them; but beyond this they are unnoticeably attracted by other passions and they are troubled by them, however they are not concerned over them, but on the contrary think that they possess something great. Such people are like a man who builds only one wall, raising it up as high as possible; and gazing only at the loftiness of this one wall, he thinks that he has done something great. He does not realize that should the wind blow even once it will blow the wall down, for it stands alone and is not bound to other walls. Besides, no one can set up a defense for himself from one wall, because it is vulnerable from all the other sides. It is unreasonable to act in this way—on the contrary, one who desires to build a house that will protect him should build it and fortify it from all four sides. I will explain to you how this is.
At first a foundation must be placed, that is, faith: for without faith, as the Apostle says, it is impossible to please Him [God] (Heb. 11:6), and then on this foundation a man should erect his building evenly. If obedience is needed, he should place one stone of obedience; if he has been offended by his brother, he should place one stone of long-suffering; if an occasion for continence has presented itself he should place one stone of continence. Thus from every virtue for which an occasion presents itself he should place in the building one stone, and thus build it up from all sides, placing now a stone of compassion, now a stone of cutting off his own will, now a stone of meekness, and so forth. And while doing all this one should be careful to have patience and courage, for they are the foundation stone, by them is bound together the building and one wall is joined with the other, which is why the walls do not lean and are not separated one from the other. Without patience and courage no one can perform a single virtue. For if someone does not have courage in his soul, he will not have patience either; and he who does not have patience can do nothing at all. Therefore it is said, in your patience possess ye your souls (Lk. 21:19).
One who is building must likewise spread mortar on each stone; for if he places stone upon stone without mortar, the stones will fall out and the house will fall down. Mortar is humility, because it is taken from the earth and is to be found at everyone's feet. And every virtue which is performed without humility is not a virtue. This is written also in the Patericon: "Just as one cannot build a boat without nails, so also it is impossible to be saved without the humility of wisdom." And thus, everyone should do everything that he does that is good with humility, so that by humility he might preserve what has been done.
A house must also have so-called rafters, which are discernment: they confirm the building, join stone with stone and tie the walls together, while at the same time adding great beauty to the house. The roof is love, which is the perfection of virtue, and it is the pinnacle of the house. After the roof, there is a railing. What does the railing around the roof mean? In the law about this it is written, if you build a house and make a roof on it, then make around the roof a railing, so that your children will not fall off the roof (Deut. 22:8). The railing is humility, because it defends and preserves all the virtues. And just as every virtue must be joined with humility, like, as we have said, the mortar that is spread upon each stone, so also is humility needful for the perfection of virtue. For all the saints who advance naturally come to humility, just as I have always said to you—the nearer one draws to God, the more one sees himself to be a sinner. And what are the children that the law protects from falling off the roof? The children are the thoughts abiding in the soul which should be preserved by means of humility, so that they might not fall from the roof of the dwelling.
And so the house is finished, it has rafters, it has a roof, which we have said is the perfection of the virtues; and here is the railing surrounding it. In a word, the house is ready. But is not something yet lacking? Yes, there is one thing we have not mentioned. And what is this? That the builder must be skilled, for if he is unskilled, he will make the walls a little crooked, and the house will come down in time. He is skilled who performs virtue with discernment; for someone may take up the labor of virtue, but because he does this labor without discernment he ruins it, or he constantly spoils the work and cannot finish it. He builds and destroys, puts on one stone and takes it out, and sometimes places one and takes away two. For example, a brother has come and has told you a word which has offended you or made you bitter. If you remain silent and bow to him, you have placed one stone. Then you go and say to another brother, "Such-and-such a brother insulted me and told me this and that, and I was not only silent, but I also bowed down to him," and you have placed one stone and taken away two. Again another one might bow down desiring thereby to earn praise, and in him humility turns out to be mixed with vainglory. This means placing a stone and then taking it away. But one who makes a prostration sensibly is one who is firmly convinced that he has sinned, and he is perfectly persuaded that he himself is guilty: this is what it means to make a prostration sensibly. Another one might keep silence, but foolishly, because he thinks that he is performing a virtue while he is not performing it at all. But one who keeps silence sensibly thinks that he is unworthy to speak, as the Fathers have said; this is sensible silence. Again one might not consider himself better than others, and thinks that he is doing something great and that he is being humble; but he does not know that he has nothing, because he acts foolishly. But he who with reason does not consider himself better than others, who thinks that he is nothing and that he is unworthy to be numbered among men, as Abba Moses also said about himself, “You are not a man, then why do you appear in the midst of men?"
Again one may serve a sick man, but he serves him in order to obtain a reward; this is likewise foolish. Therefore if something difficult happens during his service it easily removes him from this good deed and he does not obtain his end, because he has done it foolishly. But one who serves sensibly serves in order to acquire a merciful heart, in order to acquire a feeling of compassion: for one who has such an aim, no matter what may happen to him, whether he be afflicted from within or from without, or even should the sick man himself rise up against him in his faint-heartedness, he bears all this without disturbance, keeping sight of his aim and knowing that the sick man is a greater benefactor to him than he is to the sick man. Believe me, one who sensibly serves the sick is delivered both from passions and from battles. I know a brother who endured warfare from unclean thoughts, and he was delivered from them by the fact that he sensibly served a sick man who was suffering from dropsy. And Evagrius speaks of a certain great Elder who delivered one brother who was disturbed by fantasies at night by commanding him to fast and to serve the sick. When the brother was asked about this he said that these passions are not extinguished by any means as well as by compassion.
And if one should fast either out of vainglory, or thinking to himself that he is performing some virtue, he fasts foolishly, and therefore he could later criticize his brother, for he considers himself to be something great. In this case he has not only placed one stone and taken away two, but he is even in danger of destroying the whole wall through judging his neighbor. But one who fasts sensibly does not think that he is performing a virtue and does not wish to be praised as a faster, but he thinks that through continence he will acquire chastity, and by means of this he will come to humility, as the Fathers say: "The path to humility is bodily labors performed sensibly," and the rest. In a word, a man must perform every virtue so sensibly that he assimilates it and makes it a habit; then he will be, as we have said, a skilled artist, a builder who is able to build a sturdy house.
Thus one who desires, with God's help, to achieve such a good building should not say that the virtues are great and he cannot attain them, for one who speaks like this either has no hope in God's help or he is too lazy to dedicate himself to something good. Name any virtue you wish—we will examine it and you will see that it depends upon us to fulfill it, if we so desire. Thus the Scripture says, Love thy neighbor as thyself (Lev. 19:18, Matt. 19:19). Pay no attention to how short you fall of this virtue, lest you become fearful and say, "How can I love my neighbor as myself? Can I be concerned for his sorrows as my own, and especially for those secret ones in his heart, which I do not see and do not know?" Do not entertain such thoughts, do not think that the virtue exceeds your strength and is impossible to fulfill, but only place a beginning with hope in God, show Him your goodwill and your effort, and you will see the help He will give you to perform the virtue. Imagine two ladders, one leading above to Heaven and the other going down to hell, and you stand on the earth between these two ladders. Do not think and do not say, "How can I fly up from the earth and be suddenly in the heights of Heaven—that is, at the top of the ladder?" This is impossible and God does not demand this from you. However, be careful at least not to go down. Do not do evil to your neighbor, do not offend him, do not slander him, do not speak evil of him, do not belittle him, do not reproach him, and in this way you will begin with time, little by little, to do good also to your brother, consoling him by words, being compassionate to him or giving him what he needs. Thus, ascending from one step to the next you will attain with God's help even the top of the ladder. For little by little, helping your neighbor, you will ascend to the stage of desiring his profit as your own, and his success as your own. This is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
If we seek we will find, and if we ask God He will enlighten us; for in the Holy Gospel it is said, Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you (Matt. 7:7). It is said, "Ask," so that we might call upon God in prayer; and "seek" means that we should experience how virtue itself comes to us, what brings it, and what we should do in order to acquire it; therefore try to know what is meant also by "seek and ye shall find." "Knock" means to fulfill the commandments, for everyone who knocks does so with his hands—and hands signify activity. So, we should not only ask, but seek and act, striving, as the Apostle said, that ye may abound unto every good work (II Cor. 9:8, II Tim. 2:21).
What does it mean to be prepared? When one wishes to build a boat, at first he prepares everything necessary for the boat, down to the smallest nails, tar, and packing. Likewise if a woman wishes to weave canvas, first she prepares everything down to the smallest thread; this is what is called being prepared, that is to have in readiness everything necessary for the work. Let us also then "be prepared for every good work," being fully ready to fulfill the will of God sensibly, as He wishes and as it is pleasing to Him. And what is the meaning of what was said by the Apostle, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Rom. 12:2)? Everything that happens does so either by God's good will or by His allowance, as the Prophet said, He that prepared light and formed darkness (Isa. 14:7). And again, Shall there be evil in a city which the Lord has not wrought? (Amos 3:6). Evil here is the name given to everything that encumbers us; that is, everything sorrowful that happens for our punishment because of our viciousness, such as, hunger, plague, earthquake, drought, illness, war. All these things happen not by God's good will but rather by His allowance, for our benefit.
But God does not want us to desire something like this or enable it to happen. For example, as I have said, it may happen that by God's allowance a city is destroyed, but God does not want us to set the fire and burn it down, or that we take axes and set about destroying it, inasmuch as it is His will that the city be destroyed. Likewise God might allow that someone have some sorrow or illness, but even though it is God's will that the person be sad, still God does not wish that we be the cause of his sorrow, or that we should say, "It is God's will that he be sick, and therefore we don't feel sorry for him." God does not want this; it is not how He would like us to serve His will. On the contrary, He would like to see us become so good that we would not want that thing that He has wrought by allowance. But what does He want? He wants us to desire His good will, that which occurs, as I have said, by His good will, that is, all that which comes about according to His commandment: that we should love each other, be compassionate, give alms and the like; this is the "good" will of God. And what is the meaning of "pleasing?" Not everyone who does something good does it in a way pleasing to God. And I will tell you how this happens. It happens that someone finds a poor orphan who is beautiful in appearance; she pleases him by her beauty, and he takes her and raises her as a poor orphan, but also as beautiful one. This is the will of God which is "good" but not "pleasing". And "pleasing" is when one give alms not from some human motive but for the sake of good itself, from compassion alone: this is pleasing to God.
And the perfect will of God is when one gives alms not stingily, not indolently, not by compulsion, but with all one's strength and all one's good will, giving in such a way as if he were receiving it himself, and thus performing a good deed as if he himself were receiving a good deed: then is the perfect will of God fulfilled.
Thus a man fulfills the will of God, as the Apostle says, which is good, acceptable and perfect (Rom. 12:2). This means to fulfill it sensibly. But one should know that the very goodness of alms-giving, its very grace, is so great that it can even forgive sins, as the Prophet says, A man's own wealth is the ransom of his life (Prov. 13:8). And again in another place it says, Atone for thy sins by alms (Dan. 4:24). And the Lord Himself said, Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father is also merciful (Lk. 6:36). He did not say, Fast ye, as your Father also fasteth. He did not say, Be ye unacquisitive as your Father is also unacquisitive. But what did He say? Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father is also merciful, for this virtue especially emulates God and makes a man like unto Him. And thus it is always proper, as we have said, to keep this aim in view and do good sensibly: for the aims of almsgiving can also greatly differ. One gives alms so that his field might be blessed, and God blesses his field and he attains his aim. Another gives alms in order that his ship might be saved, and God saves his ship. Another give alms for his children and God saves and preserves his children. Another gives them in order to be glorified, and God glorifies him. God does not reject anyone, but gives to each one what he desires as long as it will not harm his soul. But these have already received their reward and God owes nothing to them because they sought nothing for themselves from Him, and the aim which they had in mind had no relation to their spiritual profit. You did this so that your field might be blessed, and God blessed your field; you did this for your children and God preserved your children. You did this in order to be glorified and God glorified you. And thus what does God owe to you? He has given you the payment for which you worked.
Another man gives alms in order to be delivered from future torments; another gives them for the profit of his soul; another gives for the sake of God, although he is not yet as God wishes, for he is still in the state of a slave, and a slave does not willingly perform the will of his lord, but rather acts out of fear of punishment. The one who gives alms in order to be delivered from torment, is delivered from torment by God. Another gives alms in order to receive a reward: this one is higher than the first, but he is still not as God wishes—for he is still not in the position of a son, but like a hireling fulfills the will of his lord in order to receive payment and profit from him. Likewise this one also gives alms in order to receive a reward from God. For as St. Basil the Great says, we can do good in three ways, as I have also mentioned to you earlier: either we do good fearing torments, and then we are in the position of a slave; or in order to receive reward and then we are in the position of a hireling: or we do good for the sake of good itself, and then we are in the position of a son, for a son fulfills the will of his father not from fear and not because he wishes to receive a reward from him, but because he want to please him, to revere him and give him rest. So should we too give alms for the sake of good itself, having compassion for one another as for our own members, and we should please others as if we ourselves had been served by them. We should give as if we ourselves were receiving—this would be sensible alms, and we would thereby attain to the position of sons as we have said above. No one can say, "I am poor and I have nothing to give as alms." For if you cannot give as much as those rich men who put their gifts in the treasury, then give the two pennies like that poor widow and God will receive this from you as more than the gifts of those rich men (cf. Mk. 12:42, Lk. 21:2). And if you do not have even this much you have strength and you can show mercy to your infirm brother by serving him. You cannot do even this? Then you can comfort you brother by a word. Show him mercy by words, and you will hear what has been said, Lo, is not a word better than a gift? (Sir. 18:17). And if you cannot help him even by words, then, when your brother becomes angry at you for something you can show him mercy and endure him during the time of his disturbance, seeing that he is tempted by the common enemy, and instead of speaking a word to him that disturbs him all the more, you can remain silent. By this you will show him mercy, delivering his soul from the enemy. And when your brother sins before you, have mercy on him and forgive him his sin, so that you also might receive forgiveness from God; for it is said, forgive, and ye shall be forgiven (Luke 6:37). You can show your mercy for the soul of your brother by forgiving him for his sin against you, for God gave us the authority, if we wish, to forgive each other the transgressions which transpire amongst us. In this way, not having any means to show mercy to his body, you have had mercy on his soul. What mercy or alms could be greater than mercy toward his soul? As the soul is more precious than the body, so mercy shown to the soul is greater than that shown to the body.
Therefore no one can say, "I cannot give alms or show mercy," for everyone can show mercy according to his strength and the disposition of his soul. Only let every man strive to do the good he does sensibly, as we have said above, regarding every virtue. For we have said that one who performs virtue sensibly is a skilled artisan who builds his house securely. The Gospel also says (cf. Mt. 7:24, 25), that a wise man builds his dwelling upon a rock, and no opposing force can cause it to fall. May God the Lover of man grant us to hear and to fulfill what we hear, so that these words will not serve for our judgment on the Day of Judgment. For to Him belongs glory unto the ages. Amen.
(1) Such railings are built in the East, where roofs are built in the form of terraces. around it.