Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite
An excerpt from "Unseen Warfare"by Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and Saint Theophan the Recluse
In addition to training your mind to learn, you should also control your will, so as not to let it lean towards your own desires, but instead to lead it to be perfectly as one with the will of God. Moreover keep it firmly planted in your mind, that it is not enough for you merely to desire and seek to please God.
Always and in everything; you must desire it as if moved by God Himself, and for one single aim—to please Him with a pure heart.
To be firmly grounded in this aim, we have to endure a much greater struggle with our nature than in anything we have mentioned above. For our nature is so accustomed to please itself, that it seeks its own comfort and pleasure in all its doings, even the most righteous and spiritual, and secretly and lustfully feeds on it as though it were food.
And so it happens that when we see the chance of spiritual doing lying before us, we immediately desire it and impetuously rush towards it;yet not as men moved by the will of God, nor for the sole purpose of pleasing Him, but for the sake of the comfort and joy which is born in us, when we desire and seek that which God wants from us. This prelest is the better concealed and hidden, the higher and more spiritual is the nature of what we desire. This is why I say that we should not be satisfied with desiring what God wills, but must desire it how He wishes it, when He wishes it and for the reason and purpose He wishes it.
The Apostle also teaches us to prove what is the will of God, that it is not only good, but also acceptable to Him and perfect in all respects. He says: ‘Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God’ (Rom. xii. 2). For if our action is faulty, even in one respect, or if we do something not with our whole will and strength, it is clear that it is, and is called, imperfect. This should lead you to the conclusion that even when we desire God Himself and seek Him, even this desire and search can contain some fault or omission, and may be mixed with some pandering to our self-love or vainglory; since we may have in view more our own good than the will of God, and do something rather for our own sake than for the sake of God. Yet He considers only those actions acceptable, which are done solely for His glory and wishes us to love Him alone, desire Him alone and work for Him alone.
Thus, my brother, if you wish to safeguard yourself from such hidden obstacles on the path to perfection, if you wish to be firmly grounded in such an attitude as to desire and do all things only because God wishes it, desirous only to please and glorify Him and to work for Him alone, since He wishes to be the beginning and the end in every action and every thought of ours— act in the following manner.
When there lies before you some work, which accords with the will of God, or is good in itself, do not immediately incline your will towards it and do not desire it, without previously raising your mind to God, so as to be clear whether it is the direct will of God that you should desire and perform such actions and whether they would be acceptable to God. And when you compose your thoughts, in such a way, that the inclination of your will is determined by God’s will itself, then wish it and do it, but only because God wishes it, only for the sake of pleasing Him and for His glory alone.
In the same way, when you wish to draw back from something not in keeping with God’s will, or not good, do not immediately turn away from it, but first fix the eye of your mind on the will of God and make sure that it is God’s direct will that you should turn away from it for the sake of pleasing Him; for the self-flattery of our nature is very subtle and few can discern it. Secretly it pursues only its own ends, though meanwhile its outward conduct is such, that it seems to us we have but the single aim of pleasing God, though in actual fact this is not so.
Thus it often happens that in actual fact we want or do not want something for our own sake, for our own gratification, and yet think that we want it solely to please God. The one exclusive means to avoid such self-deception is purity of heart, which consists in rejecting the old Adam and clothing ourselves in the new man. This is the aim and purpose of the whole unseen warfare.
If you wish to learn the art of doing this, then listen. When you start to do anything you must, as far as you can, strip yourself of all wishes of your own and neither desire to do that thing nor turn away from it, until you perceive that the only thing which moves and draws you towards it is the consciousness of God’s will. If you cannot always actively perceive God moving you in all your actions, whether external or, what is more important, internal, those of your soul, then be content to make this perception possible: in other words, always sincerely dispose yourself to keep nothing but God’s pleasure in view. We may have real feeling of God moving us to an action either through divine enlightenment or mental illumination, in which God’s will is revealed to pure hearts in contemplation,—or through an inner divine inspiration, by some inner word—or through some other actions of divine grace, acting
in a pure heart, such as life-giving warmth, unspeakable joy, leaping of the spirit, being moved to tenderness, heartfelt tears, love for God and other blessed and God-loving feelings, produced not according to our will but coming from God, not by our own action but in our passivity.
All such feelings serve as assurances that what we seek to do accords with God’s will. But before all things we must address to God the warmest and purest prayer, begging Him with all diligence, once, twice and many times, to illumine our darkness and to teach us. Pray three times, say the great fathers Barsanuphius and John, and then do as your heart inclines.
Moreover you must not forget that all the decisions, formed in you as a result of the inner spiritual movements we have mentioned, must be verified by the advice and judgment of the experienced.
As regards activities whose completion takes a more or less long time, or which go on continually, we should establish in our heart a firm resolve to practise them solely to please God, and this not merely in the beginning, when we undertake them, but later too this right resolve should be renewed frequently to the very end.
For if you fail to do this, you will be in danger of becoming once more enmeshed in the self-love so natural to us, which, inclining more towards pleasing ourselves than towards pleasing God, in the course of time often succeeds in turning us imperceptibly away from our original good disposition and in changing our first good aims and intentions.
Therefore St. Gregory of Sinai wrote: ‘ Pay heed, also, to the intention of your will, watching which way it inclines: whether it is towards God, whether it is for the sake of good itself and for the benefit of your soul that you sit in silence, psalmodise, recite prayers or perform any other good works, lest you be imperceptibly robbed’ (Philokalia).
So if a man does not watch himself well, he may begin some activity with the sole purpose of pleasing the Lord, but later, little by little, introduce into it a self-interest, which makes him find in it also a satisfaction of his own desires, and this to such an extent that the will of God becomes completely forgotten.
Then he becomes so tightly bound by enjoyment of the work, that if God Himself were to hinder him in this practice, either through some illness, or through temptations from men or demons, or by some other means, he is filled with indignation, often blames one man or another for having interfered in the course of things he so loves, and sometimes even murmurs against God Himself.
This is a sure sign that the disposition of his heart did not come from God, but has sprung from the rotten and corrupted root of self-love.
A man who is moved towards doing one thing or another purely by the consciousness of God’s will and the desire to please Him, never prefers one activity to another, even if one is great and lofty, and another petty and insignificant; but he has his will equally disposed towards either, so long as they are pleasing to God. So whether he does something lofty and great or petty and insignificant, he remains equally calm and content; for he has but one intention and one aim, to the exclusion of all else—to please God always and in all he does, whether in life or in death, as the Apostle says: ‘Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him” (II Cor. v. 9).
Therefore, beloved, be ever watchful over yourself, be collected within and strive by all means in your power to direct all your activities towards this single aim.
If you are moved to do something by an inner urge to escape the torment of hell or to inherit heaven, here too you can mentally direct your activity towards the same ultimate aim—to please God by obeying His will; since it is God’s wish that you should go to heaven rather than be cast into hell.
None can fully conceive how great is the strength and power in our spiritual life of this motive and aim—to please God. For even if some activity is in itself quite simple and unimportant, if it is done for the sole purpose of pleasing God and to His glory, it becomes in the eyes of God infinitely more valuable than many other great and glorious deeds, performed without this aim. Thus God is more pleased to see you give a small coin to a beggar, solely with the purpose of pleasing His divine majesty, than if you strip yourself of all your possessions for some ether purpose, even if you do so for the sake of receiving heavenly blessings, although such purpose is good and desirable.
This inner task, which you must practise in anything you do— the task of directing your thoughts, feelings and actions only towards pleasing God, will seem difficult at first, but will later become easy and light, if, firstly you constantly exercise yourself in this spiritual effort and, secondly, if you constantly keep warm your yearning for God, sighing for Him with a live longing of the heart,as for the only perfect good, worthy of being sought for Its Own sake, to be served, and to be loved above all things.
The more often this search for limitless good in God is practised in our consciousness and the deeper it penetrates into the feeling of the heart, the more frequent and warm will be the actions of our will I have described, and the more quickly and easily shall we form the habit of doing everything solely through love of the Lord, impelled only by desire to please Him, since He is the most worthy of all love.