The Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959) Strugles, Experiences, Teachings (14)
21 Οκτωβρίου 2009
The Elder very often stressed the importance of vigil as the most practical method in the spiritual life, essential in all three states in the struggle. When the monk is starting out, at the first stage, which is the period of purification, all the systems of what is called practical work are used. At that stage, when the beginner is struggling with bodily afflictions, the most beneficial factor in subduing the passions and suppressing the actual commission of sin is keeping vigil. This applies particularly to unnatural movements, which are often intensified by the vigour of the body which is naturally overabundant in strong people. No other method of struggle helps as much as deprivation of sleep. Truly, vigil dissolves the body, as the ever-memorable Elder used to say.
Vigil is essential also in the second state, called that of illumination, when by the grace and mercy of our Christ the walls of Jericho have fallen. At this stage the law of need has already prevailed, and the tyranny of desire with its accompanying passions has been permanently destroyed. Then, in other words, the senses have acquired good order and are subject to the intellect, without the supervision of which they do not dwell on anything, and man has withdrawn, so to speak, from the slippery slope of life and behaviour contrary to nature. At this point, according to our God-bearing Fathers, it is considered that he has overcome nature. At that stage, then, the function of vigil is regarded as indispensible, because it is through it and through groanings past speech in the course of this vigil and supplications from the depths of humility that the intellect which loves God will receive and continue to receive – by the grace of the Life-giving and All-Holy Spirit – the aid and comfort which bring illumination.
As for those who, by the grace and mercy of our all-good Master Christ and His most blessed Mother, have stepped across this most sacred middle way and set foot on the third stage of the way of repose and love which leads to the unending end – who, unfortunately, are always few – they are in no way parted from blessed vigil. In them it is accomplished without effort and, rather, becomes an integral part of them, because of the ceaseless prayerful spirit which prevails.
The chief characteristic of the Christ-bearing soul is not only its passionless movements, but even more its perpetual state of prayer. It does not cease to pray continuously, and it is then that in a mysterious way, according to intention or strength – God knows – a spiritual person such as this is made available to help others. This person is sometimes placed by divine providence as an assistant or superior in monastic communities, where he is of great help to others in all sorts of ways. At other times his position is one of simplicity and obscurity and he lives his life almost unknown, because this was how he wanted it and God granted it to him. Such a person turns his attention to the whole body of the faithful and of the Church and prays for them night and day and takes up the pain of all mankind, and suffers with those who suffer and ‘shares ill treatment with the people of God’ (Heb. 11:25) in accordance with the law of love. Happy is the community and generation which is rich in such Atlases, who stand between heaven and earth rather than on the earth.
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At Little St Anna, both I and my beloved soulmate and brother Ephrem (who was younger than me and had had a more genteel upbringing, whereas I was a rough peasant) were fighting a war with sleep; not only because of physical laws, of course, but also through the influence of the tempter, which is especially evident when one wants to take part in the struggle. We were then in the prime of life, at the finest age, and our fervour was increased both by our environment and rule of life and by the example of the Elders, who never gave way despite all their fatigue, even while illness plagued the Elder constantly. Once when the battle with sleep became intolerable and would not die down despite all artificial contrivances, I asked the Elder what it was like and what he did when this happened to him, and he answered:
‘I am afraid to say in case it recurs, because this war was not only very bitter and incessant, but it also went on throughout my youth. When I was very young, even before I joined Father Arsenios and specifically when I was in the caves of St Athanasios, I pushed myself hard to keep vigil and spent a week without sleeping at all. At night I would stand up or walk around, and thus I forced my nature as far as possible to resist. In the end, I was so overcome by sleep where I stood that I fell down, and it seems I hit my head slightly. The place where I fell was sloping and uneven, with big stones, and when I fell I didn’t know anything about it. It was only when I came to after my prolongued lack of sleep – because it seems that I slept for quite a time where I fell – it was only when I woke up that I realised what had happened. Later, when we embarked on our regime and were engaged in the strugggle, sleep really battled with me and, because I was concerned especially with keeping vigil, this struggle tired me – particularly in the winter, when I was not able to move about a little outside my cell. Of course, natural causes produce sleepiness at the normal hours, but so does the war waged by the tempter. But the most terrible form of this passion is when grace hides itself it from man, and he is seized with listlessness and gloom and the lamp of consolation is nowhere to be seen. Then the warrior really is sorely tried, and “if the Lord were not with us, none could withstand the wrestling of the enemy” and indeed “the victors are therefore exalted.” Once in a situation like that, when my body was weakened and therefore contributed to my drowsiness, I had been sorely tried and was struggling not to give in, but I had reached the end. Then I stopped for a moment and wept in misery, saying, “Lord, will they even make man’s will give way?” And immediately there was a sweet voice within me, “Will you not endure everything for love of Me?” And all at once it was as if an oppressive dark cloud hanging over me had lifted, and I felt like a little child. Then I fell down and cried out with tears and spiritual joy, “Yes, Lord, for You; so help my weakness!” After that for a long time I was left in peace by that scourge, and the struggle was directed elsewhere.’
Something else in which the Elder schooled us extensively was attention and economy with our things in general. With appropriate patristic texts, which I remember, and others from the Bible, he taught us how indispensible this was if God’s blessing were to continue upon us, and we understood this very palpably. Our little chapel was dedicated to the Nativity of St John the Baptist, on 24 June, and we had him as our patron. When something spilled on the ground, beans for instance or something else, however small, the Elder would bend down to get it, even though this was a great ordeal for his sickly and semi-paralysed body, and he would tell us, ‘Don’t despise even the smallest of things, because waste of these things counts, and the blessing will depart from our house. Thanks to our carefulness and economy, I have often seen the holy Forerunner come and throw into our compound many of the things we need.’
Whenever we took anything from our containers, he made us make the sign of the Cross over it at the beginning and at the end and, if we forgot, he would rebuke us and make us remedy our failing. As to what we lived on so far as sustenance went, it was a special blessing rather than any human achievement through our own care and providence, because we were self-sufficient even though the Elder made charitable gifts without ever leaving enough for us. We observed this repeatedly, and it brought us to increased faith in God and our Lady, who took care of us more than any rational human effort.
The Elder also told us about an incident which took place some time ago in Katounakia, and which was very significant in connection with economy and waste. The Elder to whom this happened, I think in the previous generation, was a man of great virtue and one of those certain in their faith, who really have ‘cast all their anxieties on the Lord’ (1 Peter 5:7); and God does indeed take care of all their needs. This blessed Elder, then, spent his time in prayer and spiritual contemplation, and by divine prompting the brothers round about, or even from further afield, would regularly bring him food, as much as he needed. Once, who knows by what judgements of God, in order to test the strictness of his attentiveness and experience, they brought him more than he needed and in consequence he did not maintain his usual strict economy, but left the remains in a corner because it was surplus to requirements, and it began to go bad. But strangely, they did not bring him more at the usual intervals, as they always had. He waited and wondered what was the cause of this omission, because he was convinced that God would not overlook him. When he had reached the limit of his patience and self-restraint, he began to feel uneasy and searched his thoughts in detail, in order to discover where he had done wrong so as to stand in the way of the infallible promise that divine providence had given him. Then he sensed in his mind that the cause was probably his disdain for the leftovers which he had pushed aside. At this he made a point of gathering them up as best he could, and once he had cleaned them and begun to eat the fathers once again resumed their good practice of providing for him. This teaches us at once ‘that nothing may be lost’ (Jn 6:12) and at the same time that ‘he learned through what he suffered’ (Heb. 5:8) to gather up the leftovers, as the Apostles did after the feeding of the five thousand.
In the same measure as he maintained economy he equally maintained frugality, and avoided anything that was not demanded by shere need. All our things and everything to do with our life was cheap and worthless, the object being not to create effort, to the point that if we needed to move to another place, our things would not be so necessary that we had to take them with us. But for himself too he practised such poverty and subsisted on such cheap things that they would be unbelievable if I described them. I will just say this much, that when he fell asleep we found absolutely nothing worth inheriting for use, unless out of reverence and for a blessing one just wanted to keep something as a momento. He was a great believer in freedom from possessions, not so much as an exercise in self-denial and poverty but more as a way to be free from care and live without distractions, which greatly assists the mind in inwardness and prayer.
As time went by, however, the Elder’s strength decreased. His body became a breeding-ground for sicknesses, and the signs of his ascetic exhaustion were now permanent. At that time we had our own priest, Haralampos, and we had a Liturgy daily. This also tired the Elder, who had no intention of not taking part even though his hut was quite a way from the chapel, particularly in the summer when, with the programme we had, we kept vigil all night every night. Our rule, as we have already said, was to keep vigil daily up to midnight and then begin the Liturgy. But in summer time that became very tiring because ‘midnight’ was not adjusted in accordance with the actual length of the night, and the Liturgy always had to start at the sixth hour of the night. We would finish exhausted and worn out from lack of sleep and from the summer heat, and since it grew light very early there was no time to rest. All this together with the loads we had to carry, which were unavoidable, and the other privations imposed by the situation there at that time, impaired our own health too. This in particular concerned the Elder greatly, and that was the main reason that made him think of moving.
To be continued…