A Hymn to the Theotokos
Who is able to worthily praise and bless thee, O Maiden Bride of God, since through thee the deliverance of the world hath come to pass? Therefore with thankfulness we cry out to thee saying: Rejoice, thou who hast joined together those which were separated and art the deification of Adam! Rejoice, thou who hast illumined our race with the light-bearing Resurrection of thy Son and our God: Therefore, the race of Christians unceasingly bless thee. (Theotokion of the Aposticha, Saturday Small Vespers Tone 2)
Here is offered a transcript of a talk originally given in Greek by a monk of the HolyMountain. This English translation was done spontaneously as the talk was being given, therefore it will not be a word-for-word reproduction of the Elder’s original words. In a number of places the translator did sum up what the Elder had said, and it is this text that has been transcribed. This text has undergone some editing. Now to the talk of the Elder:
Tonight Father is speaking to us on the topic of spiritual warfare. He wants to go over some of the techniques that the devil uses in order to get us to fall into sin, so that he can take away our hearts, minds, and souls from the Lord. Verily he can soil us with his uncleanness, to make our lives like his, mired in filth. Father quotes the Apostle Paul, who tells us in the book of Ephesians that we are not warring with flesh and blood. In other words, this is not a physical warfare. We are not battling body with body, physical body with physical body; it is a war nonetheless, but in a different realm. It is a spiritual and mental war. It is a battle of spirit with spirit. In each one of us we have our own inner spirit which is made in the image of God. It is this inner spirit which finds its expression in our bodies, and is the part of us—the real part—that fights against the devil. And obviously the devil wants very much to bring us to a fall. And of course, Father emphasizes that the devil has a tremendous amount of experience. He knows all the various methods and techniques that he can summon to his aid in order to bring us to some kind of a fall. He knows how to make us sin. For example, thoughts are one of the primary methods of the devil, putting bad thoughts in our minds. Also he works very much with fantasies, or shall we call them mental images. These mental images also pull us in the direction of sin that leads to a darkness, and again to the filth of the devil.
Then Father theorizes a little bit as to why the devil does these things, why is he so hateful and so malevolent? Why does he wish so much to work against God? First of all, the devil does this from jealousy. He is possessed and consumed by jealousy, because he knows of all the good things that the Lord has in store for all of us, the wonderful things. And because of this, he works even harder, since he knows that he himself has been cut off from these blessings. This is so because of his own apostasy, his own rebellion against God, of his being in a position of complete opposition to God; so that he can say to the Lord, from this act of hatred, from this jealousy that he possesses: “Look how many I have taken from you. You see everything that you did by sending your Son to die on the Cross is of no avail, because look how many I have taken with me”. In other words he wants to embitter God, he wants to make the Lord feel as though whatever He did, whatever He expended, all those energies that He has expended in order to bring us to salvation, has all been in vain. In this way, there will be a sort of a pirate’s victory, in which he will in a sense go down with all of us; but if he can get back at God, it will be worth it—that kind of an approach.
Father brings into the discussion the Holy Fathers of the Church, who tell us that the devil and sin are characterized like little lambs in the beginning. They come as something very small, seemingly insignificant; very little and very subtle, almost unnoticeable movements of the soul. Even the fantasy, even the little thoughts that we fantasize over, even those little things that seem so unimportant and innocent are potential pitfalls in the spiritual warfare. For we might say to ourselves, this is an ant; this is something small that will go away. However in quoting the prophets, Father says that if we don’t change the thought immediately, little by little it becomes stronger, more powerful, and even comes to the point where it actually fools us. And now, that little lamb which seemed so innocent and insignificant and unimportant before, becomes like a lion. It is the kind of a thing that becomes very dangerous and almost impossible to eradicate.
He quotes St. Isaac the Syrian who says that the devil in the beginning is easy to deal with; but once he gets a foothold, once he gets his foot in the door, so to speak, then it becomes much more difficult to deal with him. So the idea here is to try to totally and immediately erase any fantasies, any subtle movements of the soul, and any thought; to chase them away as soon as we can. The weapon by which we are able to chase away these evil thoughts is the name Jesus. He quotes from the Old Testament: we are to call upon the name of the God of Jacob. Of course that name is Jesus Christ. So when the thought is small, that’s the time to address it.
He particularly emphasizes the importance of spiritual watchfulness. He says, be watchful, be vigilant, and observe things. Watch your eyes, what you see with your eyes; watch your thoughts, monitor the thoughts in your mind. Make sure your heart doesn’t keep within it anything that could eventually be damaging to your spiritual life. Monitor it all. Put a filter on it. Be careful of that pollution which is there and can taint us and lead us into sin. He gives us an example of a woman who maybe has a little cyst or a lump on her breast. If she denies its force or power, if she doesn’t go to the doctor, and she pretends that it is something minor that can go away, little by little it could continue to grow, and then become a hazard for her life. But the moment we sense that there is something which is not the way it should be, we are should immediately and take care of it, so that it does not progress any further.
In this spiritual warfare in which we are engaged, Christ gives us the weapons of light. These are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For example, the gift of love helps us to counteract hate. With the good thoughts that are generated by the Holy Spirit we can counteract the bad thoughts. To the doubt that enters our minds, we can present the true document of our faith as a counterbalance to those thoughts when they come into mind. Father compares this process of counteracting evil with good as cutting a nerve off somewhere. When you cut the nerve in your body, it seems as if that portion of the body is dead. And it stops having any life in it. It doesn’t seem to have energy or movement. Similarly in this case: if one cuts off the energy of sin, then sin dies.
If indeed we do cut these thoughts off before they become sins, they will not lead us to impurity. So we need to use these means that are given to us: we continue in holy thoughts, and this will stop the circulation of evil, and the energy of the devil. Therefore we need to watch. We have two ways by which we can check any of these thoughts that come our way. One is by the law of God; which is again something that we can use as a reference of knowing what is right and what is wrong. We also have the Holy Spirit, Who illumines us. As long as we check ourselves with the Spirit of God Who works through our conscience, and the law of God, these thoughts can all be monitored. In other words we can put a stop to them before they get a foothold in our lives.
He uses another illustration: If you live in a neighborhood where a lot of people walk by your door, you don’t necessarily open your door for whoever comes by and knocks. You are discriminating. You first check to see who is there before you open the door, before you allow this individual to come in. It is the same way with our spiritual lives. Somebody comes, knocks at the door, so to speak, of our minds—the devil has some thoughts that he wants to send our way, so any thoughts that come our way must be checked out. We have to stop these things before they get a foothold. But if we allow these thoughts to come in, if we allow this person to come in before we have a chance to see who he is, he enters and he has a place in our home. Then after a while he becomes bolder, and before you know it he drives us out, he takes over completely. It becomes something where he was merely just someone knocking at the door without opening it, to the point where he literally takes over the whole house. So Father’s advice here is, don’t open the door! When you see who it is, and you see that he is not a reputable character, you close the door and chase him away, with the prayer of Jesus. You tell him, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” and just chase him away. In other words have no dialogue with these thoughts when they come to you. Don’t give them any place at all. Because as soon as you do that, as soon as you give them a little room and they get their foot in the door, then that’s all they need. They start working their way in until finally, little by little, they take over the whole house.
So instead of light, we end up in the darkness. Instead of paradise, we go to hell. Instead of being with the Lord, we spend eternity with the demons all around us, all the time, suffocating us, bothering us, tormenting us, having the company and fellowship of them. So the options are really basically only two: Either you want to be with the Lord in paradise, or we spend the rest of eternity separated from God, having the company of the demons. So it all begins with the thoughts, the direction you want to go in. Where do we want to go, with whom do we wish to have fellowship for eternity? It all begins in the very beginning with those little thoughts coming into the mind. So the idea here of course is to do everything we can to keep our minds pure.
Father also warns us of having what he calls “parasites” in our prayers. In order words, we are distracted. Our minds are scattered. Our prayers are done as a formal routine, in a perfunctory way. They have no substance to them. We pray but we are thinking about other things, and these distracting thoughts lead us away from the focus of the prayer. Many times we pray and we don’t know what we are saying. Whether it is the Lord’s Prayer or some other prayer, when we pray we don’t know what we are actually doing. But if we don’t know what we are saying when we say these prayers, if we are saying the Lord’s Prayer for example, and we don’t realize what we are saying, how will God know what we are saying? So it is very important that we be very focused on the words of prayer. There is, of course, one prayer above the others which assists us greatly to focus our attention, and that is the Jesus Prayer. Although it is very simple, and can be said in one line, nevertheless it is very strong, and very powerful, and through it a great deal of grace can work, because it contains the holy name of Jesus. Our names, for example, don’t contain the power that the name of Jesus has, because the name of Jesus is one of the names of God; and when we call upon the name of Jesus, we summon to our aid all of that power and spiritual energy and grace that the name itself unlocks for us.
He tells us that as soon as we wake up in the morning we should try to bring into our minds possible the name of Jesus, the thought of God. When we go about our daily lives, as we enter into our cars, again to bring the name of Jesus to our minds, and to have that protection with us. To keep our mind on God, it is a kind of insurance that protects us, it covers us, and it leads us to salvation. Think of how we put the little crosses in our cars, and our icons, all the little things that we put in to ask Christ’s blessings, to seek the help of God. Think how much help by calling upon the name of Jesus we insure our spiritual lives. We Christians must realize that prayer is the birth of our lives. It is our nourishment. It is our spiritual food. In other words, if we don’t pray, we cannot live, we will die. We will not have the joy of being with Christ in eternity.
When we keep the Lord’s name in our mind, when we remember God, then the readings from the Bible, the sacraments, the teachings of the fathers, begin to take root in our lives. These develop a certain richness within us, and they lead us closer and closer to the Lord. Father speaks about the fact that many of us have an unhealthy fear of God. We are afraid to die; but he says that most of us are afraid of physical death. He says that physical death is really not the thing to be afraid of, that’s not so important. The thing we should be afraid of is spiritual death. And we wouldn’t be afraid to die, he says, if we were reconciled with God. That fear would not trouble us. But because our conscience witnesses against us, this is why we are afraid to die. It is sin, and the fact that we have not reconciled ourselves to God, that is why we are afraid to die. If we were right with the Lord, physical death would be nothing to us, because we would know that we would be ready to go. It would be just as if someone was arrested by the police, and he knew he had done nothing wrong, it wouldn’t bother him. They had nothing on him, he’d say, “I’ve done nothing, I know who I am and I know what I’ve done”. But if you knew that you did something wrong, and the police arrested you, immediately your mind would think, “Oh! They caught me”.
It is the same way with the spiritual life. When we are with the Lord, if we are in the Lord, if our minds are on Him, we have the confident assurance of knowing that since we have done nothing wrong we have nothing to fear, not even death itself. If we win this spiritual warfare, if we keep our minds and hearts pure from sin; then we will be prepared to meet the Lord and be with Him throughout all eternity. Amen.