As we are approaching the beginning of Great Lent I would like to share a few thoughts on the dangers of being strict or too strict. And I want to stress that I am only sharing a few thoughts on this subject for it seems to me that a book or volumes of books could be written on this topic. If we err in the opposite way, that is, if rather than being strict we become lazy or negligent we can easily perceive it; but the dangers of being strict or too strict often escape notice. This is probably because there is usually pride behind it; and pride hardens the heart and blinds the mind. In the Proverbs it rightly says: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (16:18)
So then, in Great Lent there are the two extremes to avoid, that is, of being lazy and neglectful on the one hand and also of being too strict on the other hand. In addition we can elude both extremes yet still err while observing what is required, by fulfilling the normal expected precepts of the letter. How can we err in the latter? I will leave that off for now and first say a little about being too strict.
Being too strict is an error that is usually the result of the lack of discrimination and always mixed with pride. In short St. Seraphim tells us: “If we willfully exhaust our body to the point that the soul also is exhausted, then such an oppression would be indiscreet even though it may be done to gain virtue.” (In the Footsteps of a Saint, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press 2006, p.26)
Let us now go on to something more detailed, from the conferences of St. John Cassian we see in the Volume I of the Philokalia a Chapter “On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination”. Here Abba Moses tells of a story when he was a youth. Some elders came to see Abba Anthony (the Great) and asked him which virtue is the greatest of all. All present gave his opinion: Some thought it was fasting and keeping vigil, others voluntary poverty and detachment, others acts of compassion and so on. Last of all Anthony pointed out that many who have practiced such virtues had nevertheless fallen away miserably from virtue and slipped into vice.
He then said:
What was it, then, that made them stray from the straight path? In my opinion it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discrimination; for it is this virtue that teaches a man to walk the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity. Discrimination is a kind of eye and lantern of the soul, as it is said in the Gospel passage: ‘The light of the body is the eye; is therefore thy eye is pure, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness’ (Matt. 6:22-3). (p. 99)…
Then Abba Moses continued:
This was Anthony’s statement, and it was approved by the other fathers. But in order to confirm what St. Anthony said by means of fresh examples of our own times, we should recall Abba Hiron and how a few days ago, as we ourselves saw, he was thrown down from the height of the ascetic state to the depths of death by the deception of the devil. We know how he spent some fifty years in the nearby desert, following a life of great severity and the strictest self-control, seeking our and living in parts of the desert wilder than those inhabited by any of the other monks there. This same man cast all the fathers and brothers of the nearby desert into inconsolable grief because, after so many labors and struggles, he was deceived by the devil and suffered such a disastrous fall. This would of not happened to him had he been armed with the virtue of discrimination, which would have taught him to trust, not his own judgment, but rather the advice of his fathers and brethren. Following his own judgment he fasted and isolated himself to such a degree that he did not even come to the church for the Holy Pascha, lest by meeting the fathers and brethren and feeding with them he would be obliged to eat lentils or whatever else was brought to the table, thereby appearing to fall short of the target which he had set for himself.
He had already for long been deceived in this way by his own willfulness when, coming upon an angel of Satan, he bowed before him as if he were an angel of light. The angel commanded him to hurl himself, into a very deep well so that he might then know by experience , because of his great virtue and ascetic efforts, that he would never again be subject to any danger. His darkened mind failed to discern who was suggesting this to him, and he hurled himself into the well during the night. Soon afterwards the brethren, discovering what had happened, were only just able to pull him up half dead. He lived for two more days and died on the third. (pp. 100-1)
May God preserve us from such and all the snares of the enemy!…to be continued