“What Seek Ye?” (John 3:18)

From the Magnificat of the Theotokos

“For He hath looked upon the lowliness of His handmaiden”

“What seek ye?” (John 1:38)

There is much talk today about deification as the aim and end of our journey. But I would say that it is best not to have our heart set on this idea. Of course it is true that deification is the result of the salvation Christ has wrought for us, it also is a motivation for us to love God; and certainly many scholars and even monastics have written about this. Those monastics who speak of this, however, are usually speaking of the Holy Fathers who came before them and they never dared to think that they themselves were at that state, or that they would even reach it. On the contrary, they had a great admiration for their predecessors, but were humbled exceedingly as they contemplated how far they were from the accomplishments of their spiritual forefathers. Those who may have attained this state of deification would say, just as did the Apostle Paul, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect” (Phil. 3:12). They felt that what they had, in its entirety, was a gift of God and not of their own doing: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (IlCor, 4.7). In order to keep them humble, God often gave them their own “thorn in the flesh” (IlCor.12.7). And despite what they had attained, they still considered themselves weak and sinful. Illustrating this point, St. Isaac the Syrian writes:

Therefore the Lord looses upon the saints the causes of humility, of a contrite heart, and of ardent [undistracted] prayer, so that those who love Him might draw nigh unto Him through humility. Often He jolts them with the passions of their nature, and the intrusions of shameful and polluted thoughts; and often too by rebukes, insults, and the buffetings of men; but sometimes with diseases and bodily ailments; and at other times with poverty, and the utter lack of necessities. And sometimes with the torment of excessive fear which He permits to fall upon them in the open warfare of the demons so as to trouble them strongly; but at times with dire variations, one more oppressive, grievous and difficult than the next….All these things occur so that they may have causes to be humbled, and that they do not become immersed in the sleep of negligence. (The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Boston, Mass. 1984 pp. 69-70)

If we were to look at the early desert fathers rather than the idea of deification, we wou1d see something quite different. The Prologue to a history of early Egyptian monasticism written in the late fourth or early fifth century, speaks at length about these monks being “true servants of God…while dwelling on earth…they live as true citizens of heaven, [for] there is no town or village in Egypt and the Thebaid which is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls. And the people depend on the prayers of these monks as if on God Himself…it is clear to all who dwell here that through them the world is kept in being, and that through them human life is preserved and honored by God…” (The Lives of the Desert Fathers, translated by Norman Russell introduction by Benedicta Ward, Mowbray pp. 12-13)

Note, however, that this was the opinion of outsiders about monks; and most certainly this was not the opinion monks had of themselves. These holy men usually defined themselves as sinners–weak men, and not strong. They would have shrunk back from thought that through them, “the world was kept in being” (ibid.)

An example of their disposition can be seen in the life of Abba Pimen. Once, a monk, who lived near Abba Pimen, visited a foreign land where he met a famous hermit and told him about the elder. In time, this hermit returned the visit, coming to see the monk in his own land. Having arrived, he asked to see Abba Pimen, and the elder received him with joy. As the hermit began to speak of spiritual and heavenly things, however, the great Abba remained silent, and thus the hermit departed deeply grieved. The monk who had presented the visitor to the elder came to him later, protesting his actions. Abba Pimen replied: “He is great and speaks of heavenly things, and I am lowly and speak of earthly things. If he had spoken of the passions of the soul, I should have replied; but he speaks to me of spiritual things and I know nothing about that.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward Mowbray p. 140) The monk then told the visiting hermit of Abba Pimen’s way of thought. Filled with compunction, the hermit returned to Abba Pimen, and they discoursed concerning the struggle against the passions. Being greatly edified, the visiting hermit said, “Truly, this is right way!” and he returned to his home grateful to God. (ibid.)

In an attempt to keep a spiritual child humble and to show this attitude of the desert fathers, the Elder John of Valaamo once wrote:

Your state is a blessed one if you feel small and like a child among spiritually mature people. Do not envy such people and do not strive for spiritual raptures. Mystics strive for such feelings of grace, and instead of reaching true contemplation they fall into diabolical self-deception. The Lord grants to a man a sense of grace if his heart is purified of passions. The Holy Fathers were in such a state, but we sinners ought to pray with penitence and ask for God’s help in our struggle with the passions. The Paterikon tells how a disciple said to a staretz that such—and-such a man ‘sees angels.’ The staretz answered; ‘This is not surprising, that he sees angels, but I would marvel at a person who saw his own sins’. Brief as this saying of the staretz is, its spiritual meaning is very deep, because nothing is so difficult as to know oneself. (Christ Is in Our Midst, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, pp. 4-5)

In speaking of the proper frame of mind of a humble soul, St. Silouan the Athonite tells us that though:

The Lord take her to heaven each day and show her all the heavenly glory in which He dwells, and the love of the Seraphim and Cherubim and all the Saints-—even then with the knowledge of experience the humble soul will say: ‘Thou, O Lord, showest me Thy glory because Thou lovest Thy creature; but do Thou give me tears and the power to thank Thee. To Thee belongeth glory in heaven and on earth, but as for me–I must weep for my sins. (St. Silouan the Athonite, The Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex England, p. 299)

I would like to conclude by relating a few brief accounts concerning Archimandrite Sophrony, the disciple and biographer of St. Silouan. Once, after a midday meal, he commented to his monastics: “I know some very simple monks who are living according to the commandments of the Gospel. If you were to speak to them about deification they would look this way and that with an expression of bewilderment on their faces.”

And now, to give an answer to our original question, “What do ye seek?” I will again turn to Archimandrite Sophrony. In a conversation that I was blessed to have with him, he once said, “Seek humility, the Holy Spirit loves the humble soul.” Although I had previously been told many times to seek humility, this admonition never had such an effect as his words did then. That is because he obviously knew from experience what he was talking about. In the course of our conversation, he was relaxed as he sat back behind a desk. But when he came to these words, he sat up, stretched out his hands on the desk, fixed his gaze slightly above me and his eyes were barely opened. He appeared to be momentarily lost in contemplation and his words made a deep impression on my soul.