Three-Hundred Sayings of the Ascetics of the Orthodox Church
Forward by the Editor
Orthodox Missionary Society
of Venerable Serapion Kozheozersky
Once some thieves came to an old hermit and said, “We are taking everything in your cell.” He answered, “Take whatever you need, my children.” They took almost everything in the cell and left. But they missed a little bag of money that was hidden. The elder picked it up and went after them, crying, “Children! You forgot something!” The thieves were amazed. Not only did they not take the money, but they returned everything that they had taken. “Truly,” they said, “this is a man of God.”
This happened in the sixth century A.D. in Palestine. St. John Moschos recorded it, along with many other stories about Orthodox monks, which he heard firsthand. The old monk did not read sermons to his impolite guests. He did not rebuke them or threaten them, nor did he have a conversation with them. What then caused the thieves to change their mind and correct their deed? They had beheld in him a different sort of man: a man of God.
Only a man who is rich in God can be so free from attachment to possessions and to money, which have enslaved humanity. Only a man who is rooted in God can unfailing preserve peace and magnanimity when confronted with manifest evil.
But most of all, the thieves were touched by the love the elder showed them. Only a man who has become like God can demonstrate such love to outlaws who have come to rob him, such that he can sincerely place their interests above his own. This could not have happened if the monks faith had been confined to rituals, collections of rules, and pretty words about God, without real experience of life in Christ.
The thieves beheld a man in whom the word of the Gospels had become a reality. In the Orthodox Church, such men are called Holy Fathers. Over the course of two milennia, this ancient Church has striven to preserve precisely that truth received from the apostles, together with experience of living communion with God. Therefore the Orthodox Church has also been able to give birth to a multitude of saints, who have been bearers of this experience of heavenly life while still on earth.
The book that you are holding in your hands has been compiled in order to enable the reader to touch the spiritual experience of the Christian East. Collected here are three-hundred sayings of over fifty Orthodox saints from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Greece, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Georgia. Since the Western Church was part of the family of Orthodox Churches for the first thousand years after the birth of Christ, you may also find in our compilation the sayings of saints who lived in the territory of contemporary Italy, England, France, and Tunis. All of this is part of the spiritual inheritance of the Orthodox Church.
The earliest of these sayings was written in the second half of the first century. The most recent was written in the second half of the twentieth century. No matter where they lived, when they lived, or who they were, the Orthodox Saints speak of a single spiritual reality, and therefore their sayings harmoniously compliment one another. In the nineteenth century, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov made this observation: “When on a clear fall night I gaze upon the clear heavens, illumined by innumerable stars that send out a single light, then I say to myself: thus are the writings of the holy fathers. When on a summer’s day I gaze upon the wide sea, covered with a multitude of distinct waves, driven by a single wind to a single end, a single pier, then I say to myself: such are the writings of the fathers. When I hear a well-ordered choir, in which different voices sing a single hymn in shimmering harmony, then I say to myself: such are the writings of the fathers.” I believe that this small collection of Patristic aphorisms will be interesting and useful not only for Orthodox Christians, but even for everyone who values what is genuine.
Much of what is assembled here has helped me personally. It has given me answers to tormenting questions, permitted me to think about the events of my life in a new way. And so I have decided, through this books to present unto you that which is dear to me.
Deacon George Maksimov.
January 8, 2011.
I. God and Us
How mistaken are those people who seek happiness outside of themselves, in foreign lands and journeys, in riches and glory, in great possessions and pleasures, in diversions and vain things, which have a bitter end! In the same thing to construct the tower of happiness outside of ourselves as it is to build a house in a place that is consistently shaken by earthquakes. Happiness is found within ourselves, and blessed is the man who has understood this. Happiness is a pure heart, for such a heart becomes the throne of God. Thus says Christ of those who have pure hearts: “I will visit them, and will walk in them, and I will be a God to them, and they will be my people.” (II Cor. 6:16) What can be lacking to them? Nothing, nothing at all! For they have the greatest good in their hearts: God Himself!
(St. Nektarios of Aegina, Path to Happiness, 1)
The soul that loves God has its rest in God and in God alone. In all the paths that men walk in in the world, they do not attain peace until they draw nigh to hope in God.
(St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 56, 89)
Truth is not a thought, not a word, not a relationship between things, not a law. Truth is a Person. It is a Being which exceeds all beings and gives life to all. If you seek truth with love and for the sake of love, she will reveal the light of His face to you inasmuch as you are able to bear it without being burned.
(St. Nicholas of Serbia, Thoughts on Good and Evil)
How does God relate to us?
God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.
(St. John Chrysostom)
A certain monk told me that when he was very sick, his mother said to his father, “How our little boy is suffering. I would gladly give myself to be cut up into pieces if that would ease his suffering.” Such is the love of God for people. He pitied people so much that he wanted to suffer for them, like their own mother, and even more. But no one can understand this great love without the grace of the Holy Spirit.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, IX.10)
The Lord loves all people, but He loves those who seek Him even more. To his chosen ones the Lord gives such great grace that for love they forsake the whole earth, the whole world, and their souls burn with desire that all people might be saved and see the glory of the Lord.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, IX.8)
How to Come to Know God
If a person wants to get an idea about the pyramids of Egypt, he must either trust those who have been in immediate proximity to the pyramids, or he must get next to them himself. There is no third option. In the same way a person can get an impression of God: He must either trust those who have stood and stand in immediate proximity to God, or he must take pains to come into such proximity himself.
(St. Nicholas of Serbia, Thoughts on Good and Evil)
As it is impossible to verbally describe the sweetness of honey to one who has never tasted honey, so the goodness of God cannot be clearly communicated by way of teaching if we ourselves are not able to penetrate into the goodness of the Lord by our own experience.
(St. Basil the Great, Conversations on the Psalms, 29)
-10. Many rich and powerful men would pay dearly to see the Lord or His Most Pure Mother, but God does not appear in riches, but in the humble heart… Every one of the poorest men can be humbles and come to know God. It need neither money nor reputation to come to know God, but only humility.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, I.11,21)
No matter how much we may study, it is not possible to come to know God unless we live according to His commandments, for God is not know by science, but by the Holy Spirit. Many philosophers and learned men came to the belief that God exists, but they did not know God. It is one thing to belief that God exists and another to know Him. If someone has come to know God by the Holy Spirit, his soul will burn with love for God day and night, and his soul cannot be bound to any earthly thing.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, VIII.3)
How do We Relate to God?
Always have the fear of God in your heart, and remember that God is always with you, everywhere, whether you are walking or sitting.
(St. Gennadius of Constantinople, The Golden Chain, 14)
Having God, fear nothing, but cast all of your care upon Him, and He will take care of you. Believe undoubtingly, and God will help you according to His mercy.
(St. Barsanuphius the Great, Instructions, 166)
You must love every man with your whole soul, but put your hope in the one God, and serve Him alone. For as long as He is protecting us and our friends (the angels) are helping us, our enemies (the demons) cannot inflict evil upon us. But when He forsakes us, the also our friends turn away from us, and our enemies receive power over us.
(St. Maximus Confessor, Chapters on Love, 4.95)
If a man has no worries about himself at all for the sake of love toward God and the working of good deeds, knowing that God is taking care of him, this is a true and wise hope. But if a man takes care of his own business and turns to God in prayer only when misfortunes come upon him which are beyond his power, and then he begins to hope in God, such a hope is vain and false. A true hope seeks only the Kingdom of God… the heart can have no peace until it obtains such a hope. This hope pacifies the heart and produces joy within it.
(St. Seraphim of Sarov, Works, 4)
God takes care of everyone
Do not say, “this happened by chance, while this came to be of itself.” In all that exists there is nothing disorderly, nothing indefinite, nothing without purpose, nothing by chance … How many hairs are on your head? God will not forget one of them. Do you see how nothing, even the smallest thing, escapes the gaze of God?
(St. Basil the Great)
It is an indubitable truth that the highest Divine Providence arranges all of creation. God considers all things beforehand and takes care for all things. This is the Divine fatherly care of which the blessed apostle Peter speaks: “Cast all of your cares upon Him, because He is concerned for you.” (I Pet. 5:7)
(St. Elias Minjatios. Sermon on the Great Fast, 1)
The purpose of God’s Providence is to unite, by means of right faith and spiritual love, people who have been separated by evil. To this end the Savior also suffered for us, “in order to gather together the children of God who were scattered.” (John 11:52)
(St. Maximus Confessor, Chapters of Love, 4.17)
Those Who Have Known God
A man becomes spiritual insofar as he lives a spiritual life. He begins to see God in all things, to see His power and might in every manifestation. Always and everywhere he sees himself abiding in God and dependent on God for all things. But insofar as a man lives a bodily life, so much he does he do bodily things; He doesn’t see God in anything, even in the the most wondrous manifestations of His Divine power. In all things he sees body, material, everywhere and always – “God is not before his eyes.” (Ps. 35:2)
(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, I.5)
When the soul knows the love of God by the Holy Spirit, then he clearly feels that the Lord is our own Father, the closest, dearest Father, the best. And there is not greater happiness that to love God with all the mind and heart, and our neighbor as ourself. And when this love is in the soul, then all things bring joy to the soul.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, IX.15)
Don’t be troubled if you don’t feel the love of God in yourself, but thing about the Lord, that He is merciful, and guard yourself from sins, and the grace of God will teach you.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, IX.16)
When you throw a nail into a fire, it gets hot and starts to glow like fire. In the same way you, when you listen to divine teachings and live accordingly, will become like God.
(St. Symeon of Daibabe, Sayings, 26)
The soul that has come to know God fully no longer desires anything else, nor does it attach itself to anything on the earth; and if you put before it a kingdom, it would not desire it, for the love of God gives such sweetness and joy to the soul that even the life of a king can no longer give it any sweetness.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, IX.13)
Christ and Us
It is only necessary to seek one thing: to be with Jesus. The man who remains with Jesus is rich, even if he is poor with regard to material things. Who ever desires the earthly more than the heavenly loses both the earthly and the heavenly. But whoever seeks the heavenly is Lord of the whole world.
(St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, Patericon)
The flood of temporal things draws us after itself, but in this flood there is, as it were, a full-grown tree: our Lord Jesus Christ. He took flesh, died, and ascended to heaven. It is as if He agreed to be in the flood of the temporal. Is this stream dragging you headlong? Hold on to Christ. He became temporal for you, so that you might become eternal, for He became temporal in such a way that He remained eternal. What difference is there between two men in a prison when one of the is a convict and the other a visitor! Sometimes a man comes to visit his friend, and it seems that both are in prison, but there is a great difference between them. One of theme is held there because of guilt, while the other has come out of love for mankind. Thus it is with our mortality: guilt holds us here, but Christ had come out of mercy. He came freely into bondage, and not as a convict.
(St. Augustin, Sermons on I John, II.10).
A man in this world must solve a problem: to be with Christ, or to be against Him. And every man decides this, whether he wants to or not. He will either be a lover of Christ or a fighter of Christ. There is no third option.
(St. Justing Popovich, Explanation of I John, 4.3)
Cleanse your mind from anger, remembrance of evil, and shameful thoughts, and then you will find out how Christ dwells in you.
(St. Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Love, 4.76)
The Fear of God
(Fear of Offending God With One’s Sins)
The fear of God illumines the soul, annihilates evil, weakens the passions, drives darkness from the soul and makes it pure. The fear of God is the summit of wisdom. Where it is not you will find nothing good. Whoever does not have the fear of God is open to diabolical falls.
(St. Ephraim Syrian)
A man obtains the fear of God if he has the remembrance of his unavoidable death and of the eternal torments that await sinners; If he tests himself every evening as to how he has spent the day, and every morning as to how he has spent the night, and if is not sharp in his relations with others.
(St. Abba Dorotheos, Soul-profiting Teachings, 4)
Sin makes man a coward; but a life in the Truth of Christ makes Him bold.
(St. John Chrysostom, On the Statues, VIII.2)
Whoever has become a servant of the Lord fears only his Master. But whoever is without the fear of God is often afraid of his own shadow. Fearfulness is the daughter of unbelief. A proud soul is the slave of fear; hoping in itself, in comes to such a state that it is startled by a small noise, and is afraid of the dark.
(St. John of the Ladder, The Ladder, 21.11,1,4)
Whoever fears God stands above all manner of fear. He has become a stranger to all the fear of this world and placed it far from himself, and no manner of trembling comes near him.
(St. Ephraim the Syrian, On the Fear of God and the Last Judgement)
Falsehood – and only falsehood – separates us from God … False thoughts, false words, false feelings, false desires – Behold the aggregate of lies that leads us to non-being, illusion, and rejection of God.
(St. Nicholas of Serbia, Thoughts on Good and Evil)
The Lord does not show Himself to a proud soul. The proud soul, no matter how many books it reads, will never know God, since by its pride it does not give place for the grace of the Holy Spirit, while God is known only by the humble soul.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, III.11)
Each of us can discuss God inasmuch as he has known the grace of the Holy Spirit; for how can we think of or discuss what we haven’t seen, or haven’t head of, or don’t know? The saints say that they have seen God, but there are people who say that there is no God. Clearly, they say this because they haven’t known God, but this does not at all mean that He is not. The saints speak of that which they have truly seen and know.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, VIII.9)
Pride does not allow the soul to set out on the path of faith. Here is my advice to the unbeliever: let him say, “Lord, if you exist, then illumine me, and I will serve you with all my heart and soul.” And for this humble thought and readiness to serve God, the Lord will immediately illumine him… And then your soul will sense the Lord; she will sense that the Lord has forgiven her, and loves her, and you will know this from experience, and the grace of the Holy Spirit will be a witness in your soul of your salvation, and you will want to cry out to the whole world: “The Lord loves us so much!”
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, III.6)
Only one who guards himself from all sin can have sincere and fervent faith. Faith is only preserved in the presence of good morals.
(St. Nikon of Optina)
II. The Realities of the Spiritual World
Sin and Evil
A lie is a delusion of the mind, while evil is a delusion of the will. The sign by which one is distinguished from the other is the judgement of God Himself … that which he teaches a man: Truth is that which leads a man to will the good. But whatever contradicts this is entirely false, entirely evil.
(St. Nicholas Cabasilas, Seven Sermons on the Life in Christ, 7)
Our world is guided by two principles and sources: God and the devil. All that is better in the world of men has its source in God, and all that is bad has the devil as its principle and source. In the final account, all good comes from God, and all evil from the devil.
(St. Justin Popovich, Explanation of I John 3:11)
40. Food is not evil, but gluttony is. Childbearing is not evil, but fornication is. Money is not evil, but avarice is. Glory is not evil, but vainglory is. Indeed, there is no evil in existing things, but only in their misuse.
(St. Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Love, 3.4)
41. God and the devil are found at opposite poles. No one can turn his face to God who has not first turned his back on sin. When a man turns his face to God, all of his paths lead to God. When a man turns his face away from God, all of his paths lead to perdition. When a man finally rejects God by word and in his heart, he is no longer fit to do anything that does not serve for his complete destruction, both of his soul and of his body.
(St. Nicholas of Serbia, Thoughts on Good and Evil)
In truth there is only one freedom – the holy freedom of Christ, whereby He freed us from sin, from evil, from the devil. It binds us to God. All other freedoms are illusory, false, that is to say, they are all, in fact, slavery.
(St. Justin Popovich, Ascetical and Theological Chapters, II.36) 43. Only faith that all does not end with this earthly existence gives us power not to chain ourselves to this earthly life by all means, and for its sake to come into all manner of baseness, degradation and humiliation. Only man of deep and sincere faith can be truly free. Dependence on the Lord God is the only dependence that does not degrade a man, nor turn him into a pitiful servant. But, on the contrary, it exalts him.
(Martyr Alexander Medem, Letter to his son, 1922)
44. Some people by the word freedom understand the ability to do whatever one wants … People who have the more allowed themselves to come into slavery to sins, passions, and defilements more often than others appear as zealots of external freedom, wanting to broaden the laws as much as possible. But such a man uses external freedom only to more severely burden himself with inner slavery. True freedom is the active ability of a man who is not enslaved to sin, who is not pricked by a condemning conscience, to choose the better in the light of God’s truth, and to bring it into actuality with the help of the gracious power of God. This is the freedom of which neither heaven nor earth are restrict.
(St. Philaret of Moscow, Sermon on the Birthday of Emperor Nicholas I, 1851)
The Lord wants us to love one another. Here is freedom: in love for God and neighbor. In this freedom, there is equality. In earthly orders, there may not be equality, but this is not important for the soul. Not everyone can be a king, not everyone a patriarch or a boss. But in any position it is possible to love God and to please Him, and only this is important. And whoever loves God more on earth will be in greater glory in His Kingdom.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, VI.23)
The Purpose of Life
Every Christian should find for himself the imperative and incentive to become holy. If you live without struggle and without hope of becoming holy, then you are Christians only in name and not in essence. But without holiness, no one shall see the Lord, that is to say they will not attain eternal blessedness. It is a trustworthy saying that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (I Tim. 1:15). But we deceive ourselves if we think that we are saved while remaining sinners. Christ saves those sinners by giving them the means to become saints.
(St. Philaret of Moscow, Sermon of September 23, 1847)
The acquisition of of holiness is not the exclusive business of monks, as certain people think. People with families are also called to holiness, as are those in all kinds of professions, who live in the world, since the commandment about perfection and holiness is given not only to monks, but to all people.
(Hieromartyr Onuphry Gagaluk)
48. The chief end of our life is to live in communion with God. To this end the Son of God became incarnate, in order to return us to this divine communion, which was lost by the fall into sin. Through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we enter into communion with the Father and thus attain our purpose.
(St. Theophan the Recluse, Letters to various people, 24)
Just as people do not enter a war in order to enjoy war, but in order to be saved from war, so we do not enter this world in order to enjoy this world, but in order to be saved from it. People go to was for the sake of something greater than war. So we also enter this temporal life for the sake of something greater: for eternal life. And as soldiers think with joy about returning home, so also Christians constantly remember the end of their lives and their return to their heavenly fatherland.
(St. Nicholas of Serbia, Thoughts on Good and Evil)
The humble soul is blessed. The Lord loves her. The Mother of God is higher than all in humility, and therefore all races bless her on earth, while the heavenly powers serve her. And the Lord has given us this blessed Mother of His as a defender and helper.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings III.14)
-52. “I love them that love me, and glorify them that glorify me.” (Proverbs 8:17, I Kings 2:30,) says the Lord of His saints. The lord gave the Holy Spirit to the saints, and they love us in the Holy Spirit. The saints hear our prayers and have the power from God to help us. The entire Christian race knows this.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, XII.1,8)
Many think that the saints are far from us. But they are far from those who distance themselves from them, and very close to those keep the commandments of Christ and have the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the heavens, all things are moved by the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is on earth too. He lives in our Church. He lives in the Mysteries. He is in the Holy Scriptures. He is in the souls of the faithful. The Holy Spirit unites all things, and therefore the saints are close to us. And when we pray to them, then the Holy Spirit hears our prayers, and our souls feel that they are praying for us.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, XII.3)
54. The saints are like the Lord, but so are all people who keep the commandments of Christ; but those who live according to their own passions and do not repent are like the devil. I think that if this mystery were revealed to the world, then they would stop serving the devil, and every one would strive to serve the Lord with all his strength, and to be like Him.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, XII.9)
55. When the soul by the Holy Spirit comes to know the Mother of God; when in the Holy Spirit the soul becomes kin to the Apostles, the Prophets, and all the Saints and Righteous Ones, then she is irresistibly drawn to that world, and cannot remain, but is bothered, and thirsts, and cannot cease from prayer, and although the body becomes exhausted and wants to lie down on a bed, even while lying in bed the soul longs for the Lord and the Kingdom of the Saints.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, I.28)
The Holy Scriptures
The Holy Scriptures lead us to God and open the path to the knowledge of God.
(St. John Chrysostom, Conversations on the Gospel of John, 59:2)
Of all the afflictions that burden the human race, there is not one, whether spiritual or bodily, that cannot be healed by the Holy Scriptures.
(St. John Chrysostom, Conversations on the Book of Genesis, 29.1)
Just as those who are deprived of light cannot walk straight, so also those who do not behold the ray of the Holy Scriptures must necessarily sin, since they walk in the deepest darkness.
(St. John Chrysostom, Conversations on the Epistle to the Romans, 0.1)
A humble man who lives a spiritual life, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, while relate all things to himself and not to others.
(St. Mark the Ascetic, Sermon, 1.6)
In all things that you find in the Holy Scriptures, seek out the purpose of the words, that you may enter into the depth of the thoughts of the saints and understand them with greater exactness. Do not approach the reading of the Divine Scriptures without prayer and asking the help of God. Consider prayer to be the key to the true understanding of that which is said in the Holy Scriptures.
(St. Isaac the Syrian, Sermon 1.85)
When you begin to read or listen to the Holy Scriptures, pray to God thus: “Lord Jesus Christ, open the ears and eyes of my heart so that I may hear Thy words and understand them, and may fulfill Thy will.” Always pray to God like this, that He might illumine your mind and open to you the power of His words. Many, having trusted in their own reason, have turned away into deception.
(St. Ephraim the Syrian)
The proud sin greatly who, after studying secular literature and having turned to the Holy Scriptures, consider all that they say to be the Law of God, and do not endeavour to come to know the thoughts of the prophets and apostles, but seek out from the scriptures inapropriate texts for their own thoughts, as if this were a good work, and not the most defiled kind of study: to distort the thoughts of Scripture and submit them to their own intentions, in spite of obvious contradictions… It is proper to children and charlatans to try to teach that which they do not know.
(St. Jerome, Letter to st. Paulinus)
If someone wants to be protected from tricks and remain healthy in the faith, he must confine his faith first to the authority of the Holy Scriptures, and secondly to the Tradition of the Church. But someone may ask, is not the canon of Scripture sufficient for everything, and why should we add thereto the authority of Tradition? This is because not everyone understands the Scriptures in the same way, but one explains them this way and another that way, so that it is possible to get therefrom as many thoughts as there are heads. Therefore it is necessary to be guided by the understanding of the Church … What is tradition? It is that which has been understood by everyone, everywhere and at all times … that which you have received, and not that which you have thought up … So then, our job is not to lead religion where we wish it to go, but to follow it where it leads, and not to give that which is our own to our heirs, but to guard that which has been given to us.
(St. Vincent of Lerina, Notes of a Pilgrim)
Do not undertake to explain the Gospels or the other books of Holy Scripture yourself. The Scriptures were not expressed arbitrarily by the prophets and apostles, but by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. How mindless then is it to explain them arbitrarily? The Holy Spirit, having expressed the Word of God through the prophets and apostles, explained it through the Holy Fathers. Both the Word of God and its explanation are a gift of the Holy Spirit. The holy Orthodox Church and its true children accept only this patristic interpretation!
(St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, On Reading the Gospel)
Sometimes Japanese protestants come to me and ask me to clarify some place in the Holy Scriptures. “You have your own missionary teachers,” I tell them, “Go ask them. What do they say?” “We have asked them. They say: understand as you know how. But I need to know the real thought of God, not my own personal opinion.” … It’s not like that with us. Everything is clear, trustworthy and simple, since we accept Holy Tradition in addition to the Holy Scriptures. And Holy Tradition is a living, unbroken voice of our Church from the time of Christ and His Apostles until now, and which will exist until the end of the world. In it all the meaning of the Holy Scriptures are preserved.
(St. Nicholas of Japan, Dia