Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Saint Nikodemos The Hagiorite-On How the enemy turns the virtues themselves against those who practise them

Saint Nikodemos The Hagiorite

But let us suppose that you faithfully and steadfastly follow the path of virtue, turning neither to right nor to left; do not imagine that the enemy will leave you alone. No! In the extract I quoted from St. John of the Ladder, you have already heard that when the enemy sees that all his attempts to lead you into evil have failed, he follows you stealthily and flatters you, suggesting that your life is wholly pleasing to God. This is his last temptation. Our response to his flattery is self-opinion, self-importance and selfcomplacency, which give birth to vanity and pride; vanity robs our doings of all value, even if they are good, and pride makes us  abhorrent to God. 
So watch and repel all such flattery of the enemy, nor let it reach the heart, but repulse it from the first moment it touches the ears of your soul.
To avoid falling into this evil which threatens you, always keep your mind collected in the heart and be for ever ready to repulse these arrows of the enemy. Standing there within, like a general on the battlefield, choose a place, of advantage for battle, fortify it thoroughly and never leave it, but make it your shelter from which to give battle. This place, its fortification and armament, is a profound and sincere realisation of your nothingness, of the fact that you are poor, blind, naked and rich only in weaknesses, faults and deeds that are blameworthy, foolish, vain and sinful. Having taken up this position, never let your mind wander outside your fortress and particularly refrain from going over your apparently fruitful fields and gardens, that is, your good deeds. If you keep to this practice, the arrows of the enemy’s pernicious flattery will not touch you, and even if one of them happens to reach you, you will immediately see and repulse it, and throw it away.

But just as warriors entrenched in a fortress do not sit idle, but either go through military training, or repair and strengthen the fortifications, so must you, sheltering in the consciousness of your nothingness, do the same. To be more precise, act as follows.
However firmly you hold your mind, it will continue to run away, and it is not surprising if in its wanderings it comes upon works of yours which look good. As soon as it comes upon them, the enemy will immediately seize it and afflict it with self-opinion, in such a way that, on returning home, it will willingly range itself on the side of the enemy and will try to drag you with it. As soon as you notice this, call your mind back to you and say to it: ‘ Listen, mind: you keep on telling me that this is good and that is not bad. Maybe so; but what’s that to do with me? You were about to praise me. Very well, sing my praises, I am listening. But know that justice demands that you should praise me only for what is my own in me and in my actions; but for those things that come from God and His grace, praise and thanks are due to their source. So let us examine what you and I have of our own and what belongs to God,and let us refer to God what comes from God, and keep what is our own. Then by what we still have—if we still have anything—let us determine our weight and value, and let us praise ourselves for it.
So, let us begin. Let us glance at the time before we existed: what were we then? Nothing, and we could do nothing, for which the Source of all life could reward us by granting us existence. Thus our existence is a spontaneous gift of God, a divine favour; this is the start, and through this we receive all the subsequent favours granted to us in His measureless mercy. So let us refer this to God.—Then we began to live. How? We do not ourselves know. For many years you and I were not aware of our existence, yet we did exist; then when we did become aware of it, we could do nothing to sustain our life. Other hands cared for us, not of themselves, but moved by the providence of the Provider of all life and being. We were brought up, educated, put on our feet.

There was nothing of our own in all this—so let us put it aside.
‘Then we began to live on our own. What is there of our own? Take our vital energy and our means of existence; they are not ours,they are a gift of God.
‘Direct knowledge of God is a gift of God, conscience is a gift of God, thirst for heavenly life is a gift of God. These three constitute the spirit of our life, urging us heavenwards. You, my mind, are not mine: you were given me by God. Neither are the powers active within me—will, with its energy—mine. Nor does my feeling, the ability to enjoy life and all my surroundings belong to me. 
My body, with all its functions and requirements, which determine our physical well-being, is not mine either. All this was given by God. And I myself belong not to me, but to God. When he gave me being, God invested me with a calculated complexity of vital energies and gave me consciousness and freedom. He ordained that I should rule over all existing in me, in accordance with the function and value of each part of my being. All this offers no grounds for self-praise, but only for realising the great and heavy duty imposed on us, and for fear of the answer we are to give to the question: What have we done with ourselves and of ourselves?

Let us now turn to the means of life. There is in us the life of the body, the life of the soul and the life of the spirit. Each of them needs its own means of existence, they are all ready to hand, but they are all a gift of God, and not our own acquisition. Air, fire,water, the earth with all its treasures: the elements, stones, metals, plants and animals, which provide all we need as food, garments and houses, arc not made by us but are given. All the concepts we need about our surroundings, the forms of our daily life, of society and government, the arts and crafts and the rules of action in all these domains, we find ready-made and need only to assimilate them, instead of bothering our heads to invent them. Each man coming into the world inherits them from his ancestors.
And where did our ancestors get it all? God sends down men endowed with special gifts and special strength of will, and they make new discoveries and improve human life. But if you were to ask any one of these inventors how he has arrived at one thing or another, he would answer: ‘I do not know; it just came into my mind, developed, took shape and matured.’ So it has always been,and so it will always be to the end of the world: the means of livelihood for the soul are not ours—they are given. Even more is it so in our spiritual—moral—religious life. In the mind of our soul God has placed knowledge of Himself, and in our conscience—knowledge of His will, endowing each alike with the hope of eternal bliss. 
This is the seed of life of the spirit. It is sown in us and received by us at the moment when God breathes into us His divine spark of life. Each man, when born, brings this seed with him and in him; later the development of this seed is determined by the kind of people who surround him. What an indescribably great blessing it is to be born among people who lead a truly spiritual life! But look around you. We possess knowledge of the one true God, worshipped as the Trinity; we confess the Son of God, Who assumed flesh for our sake and provided all things for our salvation; and we believe in the Holy Spirit, whose grace animates us and who is active in building spiritual life in us; we are planted in the Church of God and receive in it all that is needful for preserving and raising up our spiritual life, and we are inspired by the expectation of the resurrection of the dead and of life in the world to come. All this we have in the most pure and unadulterated form, and none of it is our own—it is a gift of God. So you see how rich are the means which surround you for leading a life, which should be natural to you in all its fullness; not one of them is the fruit of your own efforts, all is given you. 
You are called to the banquet of life, already prepared. if you and I can boast of anything in this respect, it is perhaps only of how we have used it all. To possess all this in full force represents our wedding garment. Should we glory in it? Should we not rather be afraid, lest the bountiful Host of the banquet should come and say to us: “ See what a banquet it is! But what of your garment.”

Now let us look more closely at this garment. The garment of the soul is chiefly composed of the moral and religious dispositions and feelings rooted in it, rather than of actions alone. But since they are hidden, they are but rarely the occasion of vanity and pride.
Actions, however, are visible, and so jump to the eye, and as it were involuntarily, provoke in the doer a feeling of self-importance and self-approbation, and their outer effect is to move the witnesses of a man’s deeds to praise, which makes this feeling of selfimportance and trumpeting still deeper and more firmly rooted. So let us examine our actions to see whether they contain anything we can incontestably boast about.
‘Let us remember that we can boast only of something which is a direct result of our own will and is done by us independently of anything else. But look how our actions proceed. How do they begin? Certain circumstances come together and lead to one action or another; or a thought comes to our mind to do something, and we do it. But the concurrence of circumstances does not come from us; nor, obviously, is the thought to do something our own; somebody suggests it. Thus, in such cases, the origin or birth of the thought to do something cannot or should not be an object of self-praise. Yet how many of our actions are of this kind ? If we examine them conscientiously, we shall find that they almost all start in this way. So we have nothing to boast of.

If we can praise ourselves for anything, it is for doing something we need not have done; for, however strong the external and internal impulses to action, the decision to act always depends on our will. But here again the decision to do a good deed is not always right. A decision is right, if it comes from the realisation that God wills such and such an action, and from obedience to His will. 
But as soon as something foreign comes in, to please oneself or other people, the quality of the decision becomes tarnished and darkened. Sometimes we take a decision for fear of what people may say if we do not; sometimes, because we expect some profit or satisfaction from the action, either now or in the future, and sometimes simply because we cannot do otherwise; we don’t want to but we must. No such acts can be counted as purely good acts, and, although they appear praiseworthy, are not so in their inner quality before God and conscience. Let us examine how many of our deeds are of this kind? Once more we are forced to admit—almost all of them. So again we have nothing to boast of.’
Thus, on strict examination, our good acts do not allow us to open our lips in boasting before others or in trumpeting inwardly to ourselves. But if we bring to memory all our blameworthy deeds—empty, vain, useless, harmful, lawless, abhorrent to God, of which there are sure to be many, what must we feel then? Perhaps someone will say: ‘ Weigh one side against the other and judge yourself by whichever is heavier.’ But here such a method is unsuitable. Actions proceed from within. If wrong actions occur, it means that our inner state is wrong; and it is this inner state which determines our worth before God—our essential worth. If this cannot be approved, then the whole man is unworthy of approval.
I shall add one more thing: all our actions done visibly, in the household, in society, at work, constitute our behaviour. If we look round, we cannot but say that on the whole our behaviour is correct. But we cannot assert that our inner state is equally correct. The eyes of the people around us exert a great pressure on our designs. These witnesses force us not to give expression to the evil which arises in the heart; we refrain from evil—and our behaviour appears correct. Were it not for them our behaviour would look quite different; and it often becomes such as long as we are sure that no other eyes can see us. It happens with some people, that as soon as their outer conditions change and they can live more freely, all that was previously concealed, for fear of being seen by others, bursts out and a formerly well-behaved man becomes a drunkard, a debauchee, or even a robber. All these bad impulses were not born at this moment, they existed before, but were denied expression, whereas now they are given free rein and so become manifest.

But even if all this was merely inside, then the whole man was such—a drunkard, a debauchee, a robber / —although outwardly he seemed different. Look carefully, maybe you too belong to this category. If it is so, to however small a degree, you have no right to boast or to accept praise.

To conclude: if, following all the indications set out above, you begin to make a frequent survey of your life, then, when the enemy begins to blow your trumpet into your ears, saying how good you are, this trumpeting will not find response within you by engendering self-esteem or self-approval, but, on the contrary, will be repulsed on every occasion by the most humble and disparaging thoughts and feelings about yourself.

Taken From "Unseen Warfare" By Saint Nikodemos The Hagiorite and Saint Theophane The Recluse.
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