Notes from March 18, 2016: St. John of Karpathos
So, suppose you were one of the monks that St. John of Karpathos was addressing. What would your life would look like if you followed his advice and how might it differ from the lives most of us live?
For example, you would likely be:
Constantly alert to even the most nuanced and hidden traps
John of Karpathos has a message of profound hope and optimism. But how are we to arrive at such hope? Certainly not by sugar-coating evil or underestimating the enemy. Alertness and wakefulness are our first line of defense
The enemy lurks like a lion in his den; he lays in our path hidden traps and snares in the form of impure and blasphemous thoughts. But if we continue wakeful, we can lay for him traps and snares and ambuscades that are far more effective and terrible.
And the greatest dangers are often hidden or disguised such as the clouding of our senses and delusion:
Guard yourself from the witchcraft of Jezebel (cf. 2Kgs.9:22). Her most powerful sells are thoughts of delusion and vainglory.
You would expect, and not be surprised by, life’s up and downs
Never get comfortable and smug, John advises. Neither should you depend on the “highs” of life and hold on tightly to them to derive meaning and hope.
Peter was first given the keys, but then he was allowed to fall into the sin of denying Christ; and so his pride was humbled by his fall. Do not be surprised, then, if after receiving the keys of spiritual knowledge you fall into various evil thoughts.
Often God takes away His blessings from us, just as He deprived job of his wealth: ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away’ (Job 1:21).
You would accept setbacks as having a purpose though you might not be able to see it right away:
Glorify our Lord, for He alone is wise: through setbacks of this kind He restrains the presumption that we tend to feel because of our advance in the knowledge of God. Trials and temptations are the reins whereby God in His providence restrains our human arrogance.
You would overcome fear through the certainty that God would enable you to keep getting up not matter how many times you fall
…But it is equally true that God will also remove from us the adversities He has brought upon us. ‘Both blessings and adversities come from God’ (Ecclus. 11:14); He has caused us to suffer adversities, but He will also give us eternal joy and glory. ‘
The Lord says to you what He said to Matthew: ‘Follow Me’ (Matt. 9:9). But when you follow the Lord with burning love, it may happen that on the road of life you strike your foot against the stone of some passion and fall unexpectedly into sin; or else, finding yourself in a muddy place, you may slip involuntarily and fall headlong. Each time you fall and in this way injure your body, you should get up again with the same eagerness as before, and continue to follow after your Lord until you reach Him. ‘
‘Both blessings and adversities come from God’ (Ecclus. 11:14); He has caused us to suffer adversities, but He will also give us eternal joy and glory. ‘As I watched over you,’ says the Lord, ‘to destroy and afflict you, so will I build you up again and will not pull you down; I will plant you and will not uproot you’ (cf. Jer. 31:28; 24:6). Do not say: ‘It’s just my bad luck’; for the Lord, who changed our situation for the worse, can unexpectedly alter it again for the better.
You would look to inner stillness and what others see as “weakness” for strength
How often do we wear ourselves out trying to fix, control, dominate, compete, predict and exert our will in other ways to fix things or find meaning:
It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own’ business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work…Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work— nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps. 13:5-6 LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.
A new understanding of true humility would become your weapon to any adversity or praise
…By God’s grace you can overcome such thoughts (of delusion and vainglory), if you regard yourself as worthless and despicable, casting yourself down before the Lord, calling upon Him to help you, and acknowledging that every gift of grace comes from heaven. For it is written: ‘A man can receive nothing, unless it is given him from heaven’ (John 3:27).
True humility, however, is not the same as self-pity and abasement. It is looking at life and your role in it differently, through the eyes of God and not your own. Accustomed as we are to seeing the world as a field of resources we can manipulate for our interests, this new would be equivalent to learning a new language. This is what Josef did when he left Egypt. The potential for such rebirth of our intellect lies within all of us:
We should mention in this connection an inward state that shows the degree of dispassion attained by the Joseph hidden within each of us. Our intellect, departing from Egypt, leaves behind it the burden of the passions and the builder’s basket of shameful slavery, and it hears a language that it does not understand (cf. Ps. 81:5-6 LXX). It hears no longer the demons’ language, impure and destructive of all true understanding, but the holy language of the light-giving angels, who convert the intellect from the non-spiritual to the spiritual— a language which illumines the soul that hears and accepts it.
This higher sense of humility, which is different from self-centered self-pity, was what was given to Job when, after asking God about the reason for his suffering, he comprehended his own insignificance in the vastness of God’s creation.
The humility which in due time and by God’s grace, after many struggles and tears, is given from heaven to those who seek it is something incomparably stronger and higher than the sense of abasement felt by those who have lapsed from holiness. This higher humility is granted only to those who have attained true perfection and are no longer under the sway of sin.
You would be a skilled fighter who has mastered the art of self-restraint and mental discipline
We are not mere victims in the hands of the demons—passive prey to his temptations. John makes reference to very specific tools at our disposal that are so powerful that we can use to trap the devil ourselves:
Prayer, the recitation of psalms and the keeping of vigils, humility, service to others and acts of compassion, thankfulness, attentive listening to the words of Scripture— all these are a trap for the enemy, an ambuscade, a pitfall, a noose, a lash and a snare.
The battle is fought in the realm of thoughts because, as the Fathers say, every sin and path to despair begins with a single thought. Your ability to fight destructive passions rests on your ability to stop destructive thoughts at their very onset. If you succumb to the temptation to pause, entertain these thoughts and even argue with them, they will eventually overwhelm you and become entrenched habits. There are many concrete tools and “how to” guides in this treatise by St. John and all the Fathers’ writing. Here is an example:
The Law says about a bull which is given to goring other bulls: ‘If men have protested to the owner and he has not destroyed the animal, he shall pay’ (Exod.21:36 LXX). You should apply this to your thoughts and impulses. Sometimes during a meal the impulse of self-esteem springs up inside you, urging you to speak at the wrong moment. Then angelic thoughts protest within you and tell you to destroy this impulse to speak. If you do not resist the impulse by keeping silent as you should, but allow it to come out into the open because you are puffed up by delusion, then you will have to pay the penalty. As a punishment you will perhaps be tempted to commit some grave sin; alternatively, you may experience severe bodily pain, or be involved in violent conflict with your brethren, or else suffer torment in the age to come. We shall have to give account for every idle and conceited word spoken by our ill-disciplined tongue. Let us guard our tongue, then, with watchfulness.
You would have infinite hope.
There is no suffering, fall or humiliation from which there is no redemption.
St. John finds hope for those who do not fast or keep the ascetic discipline:
Once certain brethren, who were always ill and could not practise fasting, said to me: ‘How is it possible for us without fasting to rid ourselves of the devil and the passions? To such people we should say: you can destroy and banish what is evil, and the demons that suggest this evil to you, not only by abstaining from food, but by calling with all your heart on God. For it is written: ‘They cried to the Lord in their trouble and He delivered them’ (Ps. 107:6);
… Understanding the Lord’s will, then, do not be discouraged because of your inability to practice asceticism, but strive all the more to be delivered from the enemy through prayer and patient thanksgiving. If thoughts of weakness and distress force you to leave the city of fasting, take refuge in another city (cf. Matt. 10:23) that is, in prayer and thanksgiving.
For those who succumb to temptation:
…Therefore ‘until iniquity shall pass away’— that is, as long as sin still troubles me— ‘I will cry to God most high’ (Ps. 57:1-2 LXX), asking Him to bestow on me this great blessing: by His power to destroy within me the provocation to sin, blotting out the fantasies of my impassioned mind and rendering it image-free.
Those who cannot yet restrain their thoughts and passions
So, if you have not yet received the gift of self-control, know that the Lord is ready to hear you if you entreat Him with prayer and hope.
Those who give in to fear and sloth
When David went out from the city of Ziklag to fight the Amalekites, some of the men with him were so exhausted that they stayed behind at the brook Besor and took no part in the battle (cf. 1Sam. 30:10). Returning after his victory, he heard the rest of his troops saying that no share in the spoils should be given to the men who had stayed behind; and he saw that these themselves were ashamed and kept silent. But David recognized that they had wanted to fight, and so in his kindness he spoke in their defense, saying that they had remained behind to guard the baggage; and on this ground he gave them as large a share in the spoils as he gave to the others who had fought bravely in the battle. You should behave in the same way towards a brother who shows fervour at first, but then grows slack. In the case of this brother and his salvation, the baggage consists of faith and repentance, humility and tears, patience, hope, long-suffering and the like. If in spite of his slackness he yet guards this baggage, waiting expectantly for Christ’s coming, he is rightly given an eternal reward.
We would refuse to despair no matter what the situation
Blessed also are those who, when grace is withdrawn, find no consolation in themselves, but only continuing tribulation and thick darkness, and yet do not despair; but, strengthened by faith, they endure courageously, convinced that they do indeed see Him who is invisible.
Sometimes our soul grows despondent at the huge swarm of its sins and temptations, and says, ‘Our hope is gone and we are, lost’ (Ezek. 37:11 LXX). Yet God, who does not despair of our salvation, says to us: ‘You shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord’ (Ezek. 37:6).
Despair comes from lack of faith, when we refuse to believe that there might be possibilities beyond what is visible and known to us. Yet, ‘The Holy Spirit shall come upon you’ (Luke 1:35)— Where the Holy Spirit is present, do not expect any more the sequence and laws of nature and habit….He brings into existence what does not as yet exist within us. The intellect that was previously defeated He now makes victorious; for the Paraclete who in compassion comes upon us from above ‘is higher than all’ (John 3:31), and He raises us above all natural impulses and demonic passions.”
And finally, instead of doubt and fear you would be filled with confidence in the power of God and the weapons at your disposal
If a demon has such strength as to force a man, even against his will, to change from his natural state of goodness into a state of sin, how great must be the strength of the angel who at the appointed time is commanded by God to restore that man’s whole condition. If the icy blast of the north wind is strong enough to give to water the hardness of rock, what cannot the warmth of the south wind achieve? … So let us confidently believe that the cold, dark coals of our mind will sooner or later blaze with heat and light under the influence of the divine fire.
Notes from March 18, 2016: St. John of Karpathos
For the Encouragement of the Monks in India who had Written to Him: One Hundred Texts
John builds on the theme of hope and gives us weapons against the most formidable battle we have to wage—that against despair. When we are weighed down by passions and sin, he acknowledges, it is easy to lose hope. Everything
With these pages John of Karpathos ends his essay for the monks in India.
He first repeats his theme of empowerment over the devil by reversing the conventional relationship between the devil as the tormentor and humans as the persevering victims. Instead, he asks us to push beyond credibility and consider how we are capable of becoming the devil’s tormentors instead.
We are aware of the torment that the enemy frequently inflicts upon us visibly or invisibly. But we do not perceive the torment and anguish that we inflict upon him, when we sometimes succeed in practicing the virtues, when we repent over our transgressions or show long-suffering and perseverance in our difficulties, pierce him to the heart…
is shrouded with hopelessness through the lens of our distorted vision. And we believe that what our darkened vision perceives is all there is to see. We see no possible way out and we despair. Yet the Holy Spirit that dwells within us is our source of life and hope, discerning our divine nature when we can’t and fulfilling potential within it that we are not even aware of.
“To the soul that doubts how it can ever give birth to Christ through great acts of holiness, these words are said,” St. John says and quotes Luke 1:35: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you’— Where the Holy Spirit is present, do not expect any more the sequence and laws of nature and habit. The Holy Spirit whom we worship is all-powerful, and in an astonishing way He brings into existence what does not as yet exist within us. The intellect that was previously defeated He now makes victorious; for the Paraclete who in compassion comes upon us from above ‘is higher than all’ (John 3:31), and He raises us above all natural impulses and demonic passions.”
Refusing to despair is our greatest weapon against the devil.
…But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times because of the withdrawal of God’s grace, rise up again each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death.
No matter what disaster befalls you, as long as hope propels you to get up infinite times “until the day of your death” you will not be defeated. This is why John tells us that
It is more serious to lose hope than to sin.
He illustrates this poignantly through the contrast between Judas and Peter–two men who sinned against Christ by denying him, and came to a point of painful recognition of the nature of their sin. Yet Judas despaired of forgiveness and salvation and hence was incapable of true repentance. Without the hope of forgiveness and renewal motivating you to change your ways, there can be no real repentance; and without repentance, there is way out of darkness and into a new life. Unlike Judas, Peter grieved but did not lose hope. Instead of giving up, he repented and transformed his life, becoming the rock of the church.
The traitor Judas was a defeatist, inexperienced in spiritual warfare; as a result he was reduced to despair by the enemy’s onslaught, and he went and hanged himself. Peter, on the other hand, was a firm rock: although brought down by a terrible fall, yet because of his experience in spiritual warfare he was not broken by despair, but leaping up he shed bitter tears from a contrite and humiliated heart. And as soon as our enemy saw them, he recoiled as if his eyes had been burnt by searing flames, and he took to flight howling and lamenting.
Judas, we are told, unlike Peter, was not versed in spiritual warfare. This is why he was “broken by despair.” This means that warfare requires skill, deliberation and practice. It presumes full acknowledgment of the existence and danger of evil– the “barbarian cave-dwellers” living within us,” as St. John reminds us; “the demons who have gained admittance to your senses and limbs, who torment and inflame your flesh.” I am reminded of the first step in AA and other 12-step programs for addiction: “I am powerless over…” Yet outside of such programs, how seriously do we take the enemy within us and how skilled and experienced are we in the spiritual warfare against them and, ultimately, hopelessness?
Throughout his essay, St. John gives us clear directions for what it takes to become skilled in spiritual warfare. You engage in warfare by preserving hope and getting up each time you fall, over and over again; by relying on the Holy Spirit and not only your distorted vision of what is possible; by recovering the child in you, striving to “present your soul to the Lord in the same state as you received it from Him: pure, innocent, completely undefiled;” 82. by struggling “to preserve unimpaired the light that shines within your intellect.”
Most importantly, though, we strengthen our skills in warfare by becoming experienced in shedding our passions; blocking out the “noise” of our incessant thoughts and achieving inner stillness:
When there is no wind blowing at sea, there are no waves; and when no demon dwells within us, our soul and body are not troubled by the passions.
It is hard to block out the noise that has become part of the way we think and become impervious to anger, envy or praise. Yet in a beautiful passage John reassures us that “the holy place of God” and ‘all the glory of the king’s daughter is within.’
So as not to be deceived and carried away by the vain and empty things that the senses bring before us, we should listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘Come, my people, enter into your inner room )— the shrine of your heart, which is closed to every conception derived from the sensible world, that image-free dwelling-place illumined by dispassion and the overshadowing of God’s grace; ‘shut your door’— to all things visible; ‘hide yourself for a brief moment’— the whole of man’s life is but a moment; ‘until the Lord’s anger has passed by’ (Isa.26:20 LXX); or, as the Psalms put it, ‘until iniquity has passed’ (Ps. 57:1). This anger of the Lord and this iniquity may be caused by demons, passions and sins; as Isaiah says to God, ‘Behold, Thou art angry, for we have sinned’ (Isa.64:5). A man escapes this anger by keeping his attention fixed continually within his heart during prayer, and by striving to remain within his inner sanctuary. As it is written, ‘Draw wisdom into your innermost self’ (Job 28:18 LXX) ; ‘all the glory of the king’s daughter is within’ (Ps. 45:13 LXX). Let us, then, continue to struggle until we enter the holy place of God, ‘the mountain of Thine inheritance, the dwelling, O Lord, which Thou hast made ready, the sanctuary which Thy hands have prepared’ (Exod. 15:17).
In the end, it all leads to love– the spiritual warfare and refusal to stay on the ground if we fall; and all is predicated on love. Freed from passions and nourished by hope we can experience God’s love in its fullness. And when our heart is open and filled with love, there is no room for hopelessness and despair. Judas is tortured by his betrayal of Christ but his heart is devoid of the fullness of love that would open the window of hope.
If, as St John says, ‘God is love’, then ‘he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him’ (1John 4:16). But he who hates his neighbour, through this hatred, is separated from love. He, then, who hates his brother is separated from God, since ‘God is love, and he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.’ To Him be, ‘glory and power through all the ages. Amen.