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Instructions of the Holy Fathers on Spiritual Life
Part I
by Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
translated by Seraphim Larin / Elizabeth Schade


This booklet appears as the first in a series of collections, from which we intend to publish the selected instructions of Orthodox ascetic fathers concerning Christian living. In compiling this first collection, the following books were used: Five tome collection of "Philokalia" (edited by Theophan the Recluse); "The Ladder" of Blessed John, Abbot of the Sinai hills; "Spiritually Beneficial Instructions" of Abba Dorotheos; "Unseen War" of St.Nikodemus of the Holy Mount; thoughts of Sylian of Athos; "Otechnik" of Bishop Ignatius Branchaninov, and other various ascetic collections. From these works, we have selected those instructions that apply to people living secular lives, and disregarded those sections that are essentially relevant to a monastic or reclusive environment.

Judging by the large number of pre-revolutionary catalogues of publications, the Lives of Saints and their directives were favorite reading to the spiritually disposed Russian individual. Indeed, it is this literature that contains within itself a power of attraction, because it is not a dry and abstract philosophy but reflects a saintly life in a righteous soul. To read about his life or his instructions is like visiting him and drawing upon his treasury of spiritual experiences.

Who are these venerable men ó ascetics and how are they unlike other Christians? While the majority of people were content to lead ordinary lives, these were people since ancient times, in Christís Church, whom He called "not of the world" (John 17:14). These righteous individuals dedicated their lives totally to God by isolating themselves away from worldly cares and falsehood, in wastelands, in deep forests, or in some other way shielded themselves from earthly temptations and the presence of outsiders. These were people thirsting for the truth, pining for higher spiritual values and ablaze with love for God, seeing the Kingdom of Heaven as their only motherland. Some of these righteous individuals attained spiritual heights and experienced blessed enlightenment that a majority of people could never see or imagine.

Saint Gregory the Theologian, who got acquainted with the blessed consciousness of hermitical existence, justified his flight into the wilderness ó before his parishioners ó in the following way: 

"Above all else, as though having locked my feelings, I wanted to remove myself from the flesh and the world, convoke within myself, in the absence of extreme need ó shun everything worldly, conversing with myself and God, live above the visible and carry within myself images of God that are always pure and not mixed with earthly and deceiving impressions. I wanted to be and continually develop as a genuinely pure mirror of God and divinity, procure light ó to a light that is not as clear in brilliance, to reap now the blessings of the Age to come, cohabit with the Angels and while still being on earth, to leave it and be raised to the pinnacle of heights by the Holy Spirit. Those of you who are familiar with this love will understand what I am saying." 

The names of the majority of ascetics that shared St.Gregoryís aspirations ó and their spiritual experiences ó remained unknown to the world. However, from time to time and for the benefit of the faithful, God would reveal to the world some of His chosen. This unexpected meeting with one or another of these ascetics left a serene and salutary effect on that person. Sometimes, this acquaintance became the turning point in that personís life, igniting a desire within him to relocate closer to the holy figure so that he could emulate his righteous living.

In this way, around a solitary ascetic, a gradual gathering of people (brotherhood) ensued, eventually forming a hermitage or monastery. Parallel to this, by placing themselves under the spiritual guidance of an experienced starets-teacher, the novices of the monastery, as well as pilgrim-visitors, assisted in the consolidation of "starchestvo" ó the practice where people sought and received spiritual direction from an old, competent and pious monk. Our native history tells us what the salutary influence was on the Russian people from the numerous monasteries, abbeys and retreats that were strewn across the vast expanses of Holy Russia. The Kievo-Pechersk Monastery, Trinity-Sergius Monastery, Valaam Monastery, Solovets Abbey, Optina Retreat and others were centers of moral rehabilitation.

The startsi-ascetics rarely wrote expressive sermons, usually keeping them concise. Although as a rule, their preceptorials were responses to specific questions from visitors, to this day they exude a great spiritual power. Being invariably based on the staretsí own experience, the teachings shed light on the various difficulties that a person will confront on his journey toward God. Teachings of the more authoritative "startsi" were often recorded, so that over the passing of some one and a half thousand years, beginning with Blessed Anthony the Great (mid-fourth century), there is an accumulated abundance of indigenous, ascetic holy literature, which enlightens the many facets of Christian living.

With all the diverse epochs, cultures and circumstances through which the lives of the ascetics passed, their teachings are outstanding in their total similitude. This has occurred for two reasons. Firstly, because all humans have the same nature and their common aim is the Kingdom of Heaven, the temptations that they are obliged to battle remain in essence as unchanged as the moral laws established by our Creator.

Secondly, the same Holy Spirit spoke through the holy Fathers as the one Who spoke through the mouths of Prophets and Apostles, and Who through our Saviorís promise, will abide in His Church until the end of time. The holy Fathers proclaim the one and the same good news as the Holy Scripture. The distinctiveness of their teachings is made up in their detailed illumination of the various facets of spiritual life, in specific examples and advice. The Holy Scripture lays the foundation for faith and pious living, while the holy Fathers explain the various aspects of such life, give advice on how to discern and surmount the devilís wiles and how to successfully attain righteousness.

Over all the decades of the Christian Church, this unanimity of spirit in matters of self-denial, unity of direction and witness on the achieved objective ó by themselves, appear as the strongest, indisputable confirmations of the authenticity of the Orthodox portrayal of the path to salvation. There is a one and only Spirit that resides in the Holy Scripture and the works of holy Fathers of the Church, and everyone that seeks to lead a genuinely Christian life undoubtedly would feel this.

Incidentally, here it must be remembered that a totally different spirit exists in the writings of Western mystics: Thomas AíKempis, Ignatius Loyola, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross and others. They preached ascetic practices, which were strictly forbidden by our Orthodox Fathers because they led to self-glorification and self-delusion. Peculiarities of self-glorification are: clouded thoughts, wishful thinking, conceit transcending into pride, accepting demons as the Savior and His Angels, stimulating thrills and subtle indulgences. Self-glorification is a heavy and destructive sickness, which can only be cured through Godís specific intervention. The meditations and ascetic practices prescribed by Yogism and Buddhism are equally as dangerous.

The twentieth century is a dawning age of the most extravagant cults and the catastrophic impoverishment of the spiritual. The widespread Christian world is becoming increasingly materialistic: the sectarians are increasingly mutilating Christian Teachings and fashioning it to the needs of the flesh. That is why it is becoming increasingly difficult for an Orthodox Christian to find a spiritual and wise "starets." However, there is the comforting fact that the teachings of many "startsi" have been saved in print and are available to us.

In our modest booklets, we have collected the patristic teachings and arranged them by author in chronological order. There is a short note on the relevant ascetic at the beginning of each chapter. For ease of reference, we have broken up the teachings into three major headings, on: faith, hope and love.

The section on faith contains teachings about the redeeming power of our Lord Jesus Christ, Godís love and His concern for people, His saving grace, the attributes of genuine faith, our regard toward God: on veneration, fear of God, prayer, thoughts on God and learning Godís will.

In the hope section, the collected teachings refer to Christian asceticism: about struggles with passions and of the garnering of good works. In particular, this segment contains teachings on zeal, patience, fortitude and steadfastness, on cleansing the conscience, moderation and self-control, chastity, dissolution, honesty, meekness, repressing anger, malice, on jealousy and an evil tongue, attitude toward sorrows, illnesses and temptations, combating grief and despondency, on accumulating humility and battling unhealthy thoughts. There are also teachings on higher virtues: vigilance, emotions and lamentations, on purity of heart, spiritual serenity, perspicacity and wisdom, and on spiritual enlightenment.

Finally, the third section covering love contains selections of teachings about our relationship with God and people, about matters of love: clemency, being non-judgmental, kindness and forgiveness. Sometimes, there are addenda of thoughts by the respective saintly authors in the presentation, dealing with death and the Final Judgement, the wiles of the devil and other concepts.

We trust that the reader will be able to evaluate the spiritual wisdom and experience in the writings of these Orthodox ascetics. Even though the reader may not always realize their advice, he will at least obtain an Orthodox, patristic semblance of thinking, which is so important in this contemporary age, abounding with heretical and anti-Christian teachings. Consequently, it is better to travel a short span on the right course, than to achieve great distance ó but in the wrong direction. Apart from that, as Saint Ephraim of Syria taught: "certainly, good thoughts give birth to good deeds."  

Published with the kind permission of Bishop Alexander Mileant

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