Instructions of the Holy Fathers on Spiritual Life

Who are these venerable men — ascetics and how are they unlike other Christians? While the majority of people were content to lead ordinary lives, these were people since ancient times, in Christ’s Church, whom He called "not of the world" (John 17:14). These righteous individuals dedicated their lives totally to God by isolating themselves away from worldly cares and falsehood, in wastelands, in deep forests, or in some other way shielded themselves from earthly temptations and the presence of outsiders. These were people thirsting for the truth, pining for higher spiritual values and ablaze with love for God, seeing the Kingdom of Heaven as their only motherland. Some of these righteous individuals attained spiritual heights and experienced blessed enlightenment that a majority of people could never see or imagine.


This booklet appears as the first in a series of collections, from which we intend to publish the selected instructions of Orthodox ascetic fathers concerning Christian living. In compiling this first collection, the following books were used: Five tome collection of “Philokalia” (edited by Theophan the Recluse); “The Ladder” of Blessed John, Abbot of the Sinai hills; “Spiritually Beneficial Instructions” of Abba Dorotheos; “Unseen War” of St.Nikodemus of the Holy Mount; thoughts of Sylian of Athos; “Otechnik” of Bishop Ignatius Branchaninov, and other various ascetic collections. From these works, we have selected those instructions that apply to people living secular lives, and disregarded those sections that are essentially relevant to a monastic or reclusive environment.

Judging by the large number of pre-revolutionary catalogues of publications, the Lives of Saints and their directives were favorite reading to the spiritually disposed Russian individual. Indeed, it is this literature that contains within itself a power of attraction, because it is not a dry and abstract philosophy but reflects a saintly life in a righteous soul. To read about his life or his instructions is like visiting him and drawing upon his treasury of spiritual experiences.

Who are these venerable men — ascetics and how are they unlike other Christians? While the majority of people were content to lead ordinary lives, these were people since ancient times, in Christ’s Church, whom He called “not of the world” (John 17:14). These righteous individuals dedicated their lives totally to God by isolating themselves away from worldly cares and falsehood, in wastelands, in deep forests, or in some other way shielded themselves from earthly temptations and the presence of outsiders. These were people thirsting for the truth, pining for higher spiritual values and ablaze with love for God, seeing the Kingdom of Heaven as their only motherland. Some of these righteous individuals attained spiritual heights and experienced blessed enlightenment that a majority of people could never see or imagine.

Saint Gregory the Theologian, who got acquainted with the blessed consciousness of hermitical existence, justified his flight into the wilderness — before his parishioners — in the following way:

“Above all else, as though having locked my feelings, I wanted to remove myself from the flesh and the world, convoke within myself, in the absence of extreme need — shun everything worldly, conversing with myself and God, live above the visible and carry within myself images of God that are always pure and not mixed with earthly and deceiving impressions. I wanted to be and continually develop as a genuinely pure mirror of God and divinity, procure light — to a light that is not as clear in brilliance, to reap now the blessings of the Age to come, cohabit with the Angels and while still being on earth, to leave it and be raised to the pinnacle of heights by the Holy Spirit. Those of you who are familiar with this love will understand what I am saying.”

The names of the majority of ascetics that shared St. Gregory’s aspirations — and their spiritual experiences — remained unknown to the world. However, from time to time and for the benefit of the faithful, God would reveal to the world some of His chosen. This unexpected meeting with one or another of these ascetics left a serene and salutary effect on that person. Sometimes, this acquaintance became the turning point in that person’s life, igniting a desire within him to relocate closer to the holy figure so that he could emulate his righteous living.

In this way, around a solitary ascetic, a gradual gathering of people (brotherhood) ensued, eventually forming a hermitage or monastery. Parallel to this, by placing themselves under the spiritual guidance of an experienced starets-teacher, the novices of the monastery, as well as pilgrim-visitors, assisted in the consolidation of “starchestvo” — the practice where people sought and received spiritual direction from an old, competent and pious monk. Our native history tells us what the salutary influence was on the Russian people from the numerous monasteries, abbeys and retreats that were strewn across the vast expanses of Holy Russia. The Kievo-Pechersk Monastery, Trinity-Sergius Monastery, Valaam Monastery, Solovets Abbey, Optina Retreat and others were centers of moral rehabilitation.

The startsi-ascetics rarely wrote expressive sermons, usually keeping them concise. Although as a rule, their preceptorials were responses to specific questions from visitors, to this day they exude a great spiritual power. Being invariably based on the starets’ own experience, the teachings shed light on the various difficulties that a person will confront on his journey toward God. Teachings of the more authoritative “startsi” were often recorded, so that over the passing of some one and a half thousand years, beginning with Blessed Anthony the Great (mid-fourth century), there is an accumulated abundance of indigenous, ascetic holy literature, which enlightens the many facets of Christian living.

With all the diverse epochs, cultures and circumstances through which the lives of the ascetics passed, their teachings are outstanding in their total similitude. This has occurred for two reasons. Firstly, because all humans have the same nature and their common aim is the Kingdom of Heaven, the temptations that they are obliged to battle remain in essence as unchanged as the moral laws established by our Creator.

Secondly, the same Holy Spirit spoke through the holy Fathers as the one Who spoke through the mouths of Prophets and Apostles, and Who through our Savior’s promise, will abide in His Church until the end of time. The holy Fathers proclaim the one and the same good news as the Holy Scripture. The distinctiveness of their teachings is made up in their detailed illumination of the various facets of spiritual life, in specific examples and advice. The Holy Scripture lays the foundation for faith and pious living, while the holy Fathers explain the various aspects of such life, give advice on how to discern and surmount the devil’s wiles and how to successfully attain righteousness.

Over all the decades of the Christian Church, this unanimity of spirit in matters of self-denial, unity of direction and witness on the achieved objective — by themselves, appear as the strongest, indisputable confirmations of the authenticity of the Orthodox portrayal of the path to salvation. There is a one and only Spirit that resides in the Holy Scripture and the works of holy Fathers of the Church, and everyone that seeks to lead a genuinely Christian life undoubtedly would feel this.

Incidentally, here it must be remembered that a totally different spirit exists in the writings of Western mystics: Thomas A’Kempis, Ignatius Loyola, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross and others. They preached ascetic practices, which were strictly forbidden by our Orthodox Fathers because they led to self-glorification and self-delusion. Peculiarities of self-glorification are: clouded thoughts, wishful thinking, conceit transcending into pride, accepting demons as the Savior and His Angels, stimulating thrills and subtle indulgences. Self-glorification is a heavy and destructive sickness, which can only be cured through God’s specific intervention. The meditations and ascetic practices prescribed by Yogism and Buddhism are equally as dangerous.

The twentieth century is a dawning age of the most extravagant cults and the catastrophic impoverishment of the spiritual. The widespread Christian world is becoming increasingly materialistic: the sectarians are increasingly mutilating Christian Teachings and fashioning it to the needs of the flesh. That is why it is becoming increasingly difficult for an Orthodox Christian to find a spiritual and wise “starets.” However, there is the comforting fact that the teachings of many “startsi” have been saved in print and are available to us.

In our modest booklets, we have collected the patristic teachings and arranged them by author in chronological order. There is a short note on the relevant ascetic at the beginning of each chapter. For ease of reference, we have broken up the teachings into three major headings, on: faith, hope and love.

The section on faith contains teachings about the redeeming power of our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s love and His concern for people, His saving grace, the attributes of genuine faith, our regard toward God: on veneration, fear of God, prayer, thoughts on God and learning God’s will.

In the hope section, the collected teachings refer to Christian asceticism: about struggles with passions and of the garnering of good works. In particular, this segment contains teachings on zeal, patience, fortitude and steadfastness, on cleansing the conscience, moderation and self-control, chastity, dissolution, honesty, meekness, repressing anger, malice, on jealousy and an evil tongue, attitude toward sorrows, illnesses and temptations, combating grief and despondency, on accumulating humility and battling unhealthy thoughts. There are also teachings on higher virtues: vigilance, emotions and lamentations, on purity of heart, spiritual serenity, perspicacity and wisdom, and on spiritual enlightenment.

Finally, the third section covering love contains selections of teachings about our relationship with God and people, about matters of love: clemency, being non-judgmental, kindness and forgiveness. Sometimes, there are addenda of thoughts by the respective saintly authors in the presentation, dealing with death and the Final Judgement, the wiles of the devil and other concepts.

We trust that the reader will be able to evaluate the spiritual wisdom and experience in the writings of these Orthodox ascetics. Even though the reader may not always realize their advice, he will at least obtain an Orthodox, patristic semblance of thinking, which is so important in this contemporary age, abounding with heretical and anti-Christian teachings. Consequently, it is better to travel a short span on the right course, than to achieve great distance — but in the wrong direction. Apart from that, as Saint Ephraim of Syria taught: “certainly, good thoughts give birth to good deeds.”

Instructions of Blessed Anthony the Great

Anthony the Great was born in Egypt in the year 250 (circa) of noble and wealthy parents, who brought him up in the Christian faith. At the age of 18, he lost his parents and was left alone to care for his sister.

Blessed Anthony’s withdrawal from the world did not occur suddenly but gradually. Initially, he resided with a pious “starets,” close to the city, and tried to emulate his lifestyle. He also visited other recluses living on the city outskirts, seeking their advice. Even at this time, because of the voluntary ordeals he undertook, he was celebrated by the people and called “God’s friend.”

Whereupon he decided to isolate himself further. Having asked the “starets” to join him and received a refusal, he bade him farewell and moved into one of the distant caves. Occasionally, one of his friends brought him food. Finally, Saint Anthony moved away completely from inhabited areas, crossed the river Nile and settled in the ruins of a fortification. He brought with him enough bread for 6 months. After this, his friends used to bring him food twice a year, which they passed through the opening in the roof.

It is impossible to imagine what temptations and struggles that this great Saint endured. He suffered from hunger and thirst, cold and heat. However, the most terrifying temptation for the hermit was, by his own admission — in the heart: yearning for the worldly life and distressing thoughts. The enticements and horrors from demons further aggravated these tribulations.

Once, during a fierce struggle with his thoughts, Anthony beseeched: “Lord, I want to be saved but my thoughts are not allowing me this.” Suddenly, he beheld a person that looked like him sitting and working. Then, that person got up and began praying, after which he sat down and continued toiling. “Do this and you will be saved,” said the Angel of the Lord.

After Anthony had lived in isolation for 20 years, some of his friends found out his whereabouts and arrived there with the intention of settling near him. After knocking on the door of his cell for some considerable time and unsuccessfully pleading for him to come out from his voluntary isolation, they were ready to force the door open. Suddenly the door opened and Anthony emerged. They were amazed at his physical state — he showed no traces of exhaustion even though he submitted himself to enormous privations. Heavenly tranquillity reigned in his soul, and this was reflected in his face. Serene, reserved, friendly to all, the “starets” soon became father and teacher to many. The wilderness became enlivened: dwellings of novices began to appear on the surrounding hills; many people sang, read, fasted, labored and ministered to the poor. Saint Anthony did not give his pupils any specific rules for monastic living. He was concerned only to entrench in them a pious disposition, instill subordination to God’s will, rejection of everything earthly and unflagging toil.

Blessed Anthony died at the old age of 106 (in the year 356) and for his deeds of self-denial earned the calling “Great.”

Blessed Anthony founded hermitical monasticism. This involved a number of recluses being under the direction of a teacher — “abba,” in Jewish meaning “father,” and living individually, either in huts or caves, committing themselves to prayer, fasting and labor. When a number of these caves or huts came under the authority of one abba, it was called a cloister.

It must be noted that during the life of Anthony the Great, there was another type of monastic life. The ascetics gathered together into one community, performed compatible tasks according to their individual strength and abilities, shared a common refectory and submitted themselves to the same rules. These communities were called monasteries and the abbas of these congregations became known as archimandrites.

God’s Love, Grace

Venerating And Understanding God’s Will

1. Through His goodness, God the Father did not spare His Only Son but surrendered Him to deliver us from our sins and iniquities. Because of us, the Son of God humbled Himself, cured us of our spiritual ills and arranged for our salvation from sin. That is why it is essential that we recognize this and constantly bear in mind God’s magnificent arrangement — that because of us, God the Word became like us in all respects except in sin. It is worthwhile for everyone to remember this and genuinely endeavor in reality, with God’s help, to liberate ourselves from sin.

2. Essentially, the Grace of the Holy Spirit is given to those who enter a commitment of ordeal with all their heart and right from the beginning, have resolved to stand firm and not give in to the enemy in anything. Moreover, in calling them, the Holy Spirit initially makes everything effortless, so as to encourage and comfort those who enter the ordeal of repentance. Later, He shows them all the difficulties of this virtuous path. He teaches them how to bear the difficulties of repentance and ascertains their limits and manner, with respect to both body and soul, until such time as He leads them to complete conversion to God.

4. He who fears God and observes His commandments is a servant of God. But the bondage in which we find ourselves is actually not a bondage, but righteousness that leads to sonship. Our Lord chose the Apostles and entrusted them with preaching the good news of the Gospel. The commandments that they received established a wonderful bondage for us so that we could govern our passions and adorn ourselves with good works. When we get closer to the benediction, our Lord Jesus Christ will tell us just as He said to His disciples: “I already do not call you slaves, but my friends and brothers: because everything that you heard from my Father, I told you.”

8. The eye sees the visible while the mind comprehends the invisible. A God-loving mind is the light of the soul. A person who has a God-loving mind has an enlightened heart and can perceive God with the mind.

8. If you approach any task and see there is an absence of God’s will, do not attempt it under any circumstances.

Aspiring toward righteousness and assiduity

11. One should not be speaking of the impossibility of leading a virtuous life but of the difficulties involved. It is certainly not attainable for everyone — only those that are pious and have a God-loving mind can enter into a virtuous life. An ordinary mind is a worldly and an inconstant one; it gives birth to good and evil thoughts, it is capricious and prone toward the material while a God-loving mind castigates evil.

11. Those who lead their lives through small and minor ordeals, on the one hand rid themselves of danger, and on the other, have no need for special precautions against it. In conquering the various sinful inclinations, they auspiciously discover the path leading toward God.

11. People who have no congenital disposition toward good should not wring their hands in despair and spurn a God-loving and virtuous life, irrespective of how difficult it may be for them. They should contemplate this and apply their given abilities toward their own welfare — because even though they will not be able to attain the pinnacles of virtue and perfection, they will become either better, or at least not become worse, which by itself is no small benefit for the soul.

Struggles with frailties.

Virtues: temperance, meekness and humility.

21. Evil adheres to our nature just as rust does to metal or grime to a body. However, just as a metallurgist did not produce rust nor parents bring about grime on their children, neither did God cause evil. He implanted a conscience and reason into the human being so that he would avoid evil, knowing that it is harmful to him and only leads toward suffering. Be vigilant: in seeing someone successful in power and wealth, do not in any way praise him. But at that moment, imagine death before you and you will never wish for anything bad or earthly.

21. The soul has its own personal passions: pride, hatred, covetousness, anger, despondency and others. When the soul commits itself totally to God, it receives a feeling of genuine contrition and from His generosity, a cleansing of all its passions. At the same time, it is taught not to follow them as well as to receive the strength to overcome them and conquer its enemies, which unceasingly lay obstacles in its path. If the soul remains firm in its conversion and obedient submission to the Holy Spirit, which teaches repentance, then the merciful Creator would take pity on her because of her labors conducted through hardships and wants — in lengthy fasting, frequent vigilance, in learning God’s word and continual prayer, rejection of worldly comforts, in meekness and spiritual humility. If it remains firm in all this, the generous God will deliver her from all temptations and through His mercy, wrest her from the enemies’ clutches.

24. The more moderate life a person leads, the calmer he becomes, because he does not fret about many things — about servants and accumulation of material things. If we do get attached to these (earthly things), as a consequence, we expose ourselves to tribulations that lead us to grumbling against God. In this way, the desire for these many things fills us with confusion and we wander in the darkness of a sinful life, not even knowing ourselves.

27. In our conversations there should be no harshness, because normally the qualities of modesty and virtue adorn intelligent people more so than they do a maiden. A God-loving mind is a light that illuminates the soul, just like the sun illuminates the body.

Sagaciousness, experience,

Fruits of piety and maturity

36. Ordinarily, people are called wise through the incorrect application of the word. Not those that have studied the utterances and writings of ancient sages are wise, but those that can differentiate between good and evil: they avoid everything that is harmful to the soul and with deep gratitude to God, judiciously cherish everything that is good and beneficial. In all truthfulness, they are the only ones that should be called wise.

36. When there is a calm wind, every seaman can have a high opinion of himself and boast. However, only during a sudden turn in the wind will the skill of an experienced navigator show through.

38. A person leading a pious life will not allow evil to enter his soul. When there is no evil in the soul, it is secure and unscathed. Neither evil demons nor mischance have any authority over these people. God delivers them from evil and they live God-like — protected from harm. He will not treat praise seriously and he will neither defend himself against any denouncement nor be annoyed with the perpetrator. 38. He that is without anger is complete and God-like; he is full of joy and God the Holy Spirit. Just as an unattended fire burns down great forests, anger, if allowed into the heart, will destroy your soul, desecrate your body and evoke many foolish and offensive thoughts. It will arouse in you agitation, covetousness, arguments, hatred and likewise ferocious passions that will weigh you down and inflict great sorrows. Consequently, let us attempt to gather the goodness and naiveté of the Saints so that our Lord Jesus Christ received us and each one of us could exclaim joyfully: “As for me, You uphold me in my integrity, And set me before Your face forever” (Psalm 41:12).

38. Just like a body that emerges from a womb prematurely cannot survive, neither can a soul that has not acquired knowledge of God through benevolent living be saved or live in communion with God.

38. Like a body (while its soul still resides in it) passes through three periods, specifically: adolescence, mature then old age, so does the soul pass through 3 periods i.e.: beginning of faith, progressing in it and then completeness. In the first period the soul begins to believe — as the Gospel says — it is born in Christ. The Apostle John gives us signs of this new birth, applicable to all three periods: “I write to you, little children…I write to you, fathers…I write to you, young men…” (1 John. 2:12-14). He wrote this not to his physical friends but to the faithful, revealing the three situations passed by those that strive toward the spiritual realm, so as to attain completeness and be worthy of total blessedness.

39. When sin ceases to dominate a person, God appears to the soul and cleanses it together with the body. If sin continues to control the body, that person is incapable of seeing God: because the soul is still located in a sinful body that does not allow the vision of God — Who is light — to enter it. David declares: “In Your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9). What kind of light is it that a person can see light in it? It is that light about which our Lord Jesus Christ mentions in the Gospel, that the whole person should be full of light so that there should not be any dark areas in him (Luke 11:36). Our Lord also said: “and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal to Him” (Mat. 11:27). The Son does not reveal His Father to the sons of darkness, but only to those who dwell in the light and are sons of the light, whose inner eyes have been enlightened by Him with the knowledge of the commandments.

Reflections on death and on demons’ traps

50. Death, to people that understand it, is immortality, while to simpletons that do not understand it, is death. One should not be afraid of physical death but the destruction of the soul, which comes about from not seeing God — this is a terrifying thing for the soul! Life is the attachment of soul and body: and death is the rupture in their association and not the disappearance of those aspects of human nature. God preserves all this after their separation. Just like a baby emerges from its mother’s womb, so does the soul emerge naked from its body. It happens that one might be clean and bright, another stained with its failings, while another black from its many sins. That is why a clever and God-loving soul, in reminding itself and discoursing about the woes after death, lives piously so as not to be condemned and be inflicted with them. But through their foolhardiness, the non-believers do not realize this and sin; not thinking about what awaits them over there. Just as one having emerged from the womb doesn’t remember being there, so the soul leaving the body does not remember being there. Just as having emerged from the womb you become advanced and bigger in body, so will you traverse into Heaven advanced and incorruptible if you emerge pure from your body. Knowing beforehand that death awaits them, mortals should be concerned about their salvation. Because a holy death is the lot that occurs to a blessed soul that dwells in goodness, a soul that becomes evil will meet eternal death. Remember that your youthfulness has passed, your strength has been exhausted while your weaknesses have grown, and the time of your departure is near at hand when you will have to give account of all your deeds. Also know that there, a brother will not be able to redeem his brother or a father deliver his son. Always think of the departure from the body, bearing in mind the eternal condemnation. If you will maintain this frame of mind, you will never sin.

51. What a great number of demons there are and how multitudinous are their traps! Even after we have repented and attempt to avoid evil acts, they do not leave us alone but continue to tempt us with despairing effort, knowing their destiny has been conclusively determined and because of their extreme wickedness and rejection of God, that their inheritance is hell. May the Lord open your inner eyes so that you may see the many demons’ snares and how much evil they inflict upon us daily — may He grant you a bold heart and a judicious spirit so that you may bring yourself as a chaste and living sacrifice to God.

51. Because of his pride, the Devil fell from the heavenly ranks and is attempting with all his might to entice toward destruction — in the same manner as his own fall: i.e. through pride and love for vainglory — all those who whole-heartedly want to serve God. These are the methods used by the demons against us — these and other similar ones in order to separate us from God. Apart from this, knowing that to love your brother is to love God, they implant hatred against one another into our hearts — hatred to such an extent that one is not capable of even looking or saying one word to his brother. Many genuine great ascetics bore the difficulties of a virtuous life, yet through foolhardiness destroyed themselves. This could happen with you if for example you grow cool toward virtuous effort, thinking that you are virtuous. Because here you have already fallen into the devil’s illness (self-importance), thinking that you are close to God and are abiding in the light, whereas in reality you are in darkness. What prompted our Jesus Christ to take off His clothes, put a towel about His waist and wash the feet of those lower than Himself, if not to teach us humility? Yes — humility. This He showed by His own example. Indeed, everyone that desires to enter the first ranks cannot do this other than through humility…Consequently, if a person does not have extreme humility, is not humble with all his heart, his mind, his spirit, his body and soul — then he will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.


Translated by Seraphim Larin and Elizabeth Schade


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