St. Anthony was one of the first ascetics to have settled in the desert. Once, having doubts about how he should live in order to be saved, he asked God in prayer: “Lord, what am I to do? How am I to spend my days; how should I live?” He then saw an angel before him that took upon himself his own appearance and began doing different kinds of work: weaving baskets (for this is what everyone in the desert did), reading a book; and then he saw him pray, then rest, then eat. Thus the angel showed how he must spend his day, and said, “If you do this, you will be saved!”
Therefore, you must also order your life aright, so that when you wake up you would know what you must do and how you should live. Or in the words of St. Anthony, “Whoever wishes to forge a piece of iron must first decide what he wants to create out of it and what form he will give it”. You have to know what you want in life. Do you want to forge a sickle? An axe? A knife? You would hit the iron with your hammer one way if you were to make a knife, and a different way if you were making a sickle, or an axe etc. Isn’t that so? We don’t forge iron carelessly!
St. Anthony tells us to have a goal and to know what we have to do in life. I’m saying this because many young people sit down to read, and spend a lot of time with their books, but lack a systematic approach; they don’t have enough order or discipline to say to themselves: “I’ll study mathematics for two hours”. They loaf around, constantly yawn, the time passes, and then they realize they haven’t done anything and haven’t achieved any positive results. You were forging iron, but didn’t know how to do it, so you ended up pointlessly tiring yourself. Sometimes only two or three movements of the hand are enough in order to get the result; we just have to know the method we’ll be using.
These are very wise words, which were said in the third century A.D.
Another time St. Anthony was thinking about the life of man and all the contradictions present in it and said to himself: “The rich and poor, the beautiful and ugly, the young and old, the sick and healthy… O, my God, why is it that there are so many of these contradicting things in life? Why do such problems exist? Why do young people die so disgracefully, so early on in life, although they were good people? And at the same time the elderly sometimes live perversely, in luxury and sin, but are healthy, and having committed so many unrighteous acts live up to 100 years of age? Why do earthquakes happen, as a result of which cities and people are wiped from the face of the earth?”
In saying that, I added my own words, because I’m conveying the essence of his question. I’m conveying the meaning of his words. He was asking himself questions about the paradoxes of life. He was asking that same “why?” that you also ask yourself: “Why, O Lord, does this, and this, and that happen?”, and without end you repeat it.
God answered his prayer thus:
“Anthony, do not busy yourself with My matters. That which you ask does not pertain to you—it pertains to My life. Such questions are the concern of Divine Providence. Do you wish to understand My Divine reasoning? Such a thing is not possible within the limits of your strength. You would not be able to bear it; you are small still and not capable of comprehending the mind of God in order to gain an understanding of all of the mysteries of the world.
From that point on St. Anthony stopped asking, having understood that there exists something that exceeds the capabilities of his strength, and began to fully rely on God.
Someone once asked him:
– Father, tell me, what should I do? Give me some good advice for my life!
St. Anthony said to him:
– I’ll tell you three things. Wherever you go, remain with God, think about Him and pray that He be with you. Second: whatever you do, let it be done in the spirit of the Holy Scriptures; that is, so that it corresponds with the Gospel. And third: wherever you might be, do not change your place; that is, don’t be unstable and chaotic in life, but be orderly.
Do you wish to go somewhere? Once I was asked by a child, “Can I go to the stadium?”
“Yes, alright,” I answered, “but if you go there, pray that God be with you: ‘Lord, enlighten me and be together with me!’, and may you perceive God’s presence in this way.
“Do I have to be saying prayers all the time?”, you might ask. No, if you’re not able to. But if you can, then you must understand that God is present, that He is near you. This isn’t some kind of philosophy and is not all that hard. Just say to yourself: “I am in the presence of God”.
One must be consistent. Sometimes you start doing something, and then you don’t like it; you start doing something else, and you don’t like it either; you find yourself a house, but you don’t like it; you find another one and don’t like it either.
Unfortunately some people have this kind of a mess in other more serious things. One person got married and told me, “What do I do now? Am I always going to be with her now?”
I asked him, “Are you serious? What else can you do?”
The way out is not in constantly changing both your external and internal situation, but to change the way you look at everything, and to “take root”. Whoever has spiritually succeeded will have success in everything—whether he’s living in one house or in another; and the same with his wife—he doesn’t need a new wife, because if it were necessary to have taken a different one, he would have done it earlier [i.e. before getting married to his current one.—Trans.].
And why do you need a new wife? He answers, “Because the new one will be better! I made a mistake getting married and will have a better life with a different wife”!
But even if you divorce and take another one, you will have the same mess in life, because if you don’t change yourself, your problems will continue growing. Isn’t that so? Won’t you still be the same kind of person when you get a new wife? Or do you think your life will somehow magically change?
That reminds me of the monk that kept going from one monastery to the other because something was always bothering him. Here’s where the problem lies. You have to change your inner self, not the entire world, because you can’t change the world if you don’t change yourself—you’ll be the same as you were before and will have problems again. And you’ll acquire new difficulties as well.
So this monk walked from monastery to monastery, because there was always something that would irritate him. In the first monastery it was humidity: “Oh, how my bones ache in the mornings here!” In another, the abbot irritated him: “There’s no humidity here, but the abbot is no good! I don’t like him. I’ll go to another monastery with a good abbot and a dry climate.” So he went to the third one, but there he was irritated by the sound of grasshoppers: “I can’t concentrate and pray here! I’m going to another monastery!”
He was just about to leave for another monastery and was already tying his sandals, when suddenly he saw the devil next to him, exactly in his own image, who was also tying his sandals. The monk asked him:
– Where are you going?
– Me? It’s not me that’s going anywhere. Where is it that you are going? It was I that made you to leave the first monastery, the second and third one; and I’ll make you leave the next one too! Because such is my job—to constantly find problems for you so that you do not understand that if you calm down internally, then wherever you are, you’ll succeed and will be able to do great things. It’s my job to confuse you and say, “This one thing is to blame, this other thing to blame!” so that you always forget that you are the only one to blame.
The problem is in me. The point is not in having no external problems. If internally everything is alright, then everything else will be alright. External things are then much more easily solved and overcome.
St. Anthony says that a person should always be on the lookout for temptations. Otherwise he can’t be saved. We have to look out for temptations until our last breath. There will always be something in life that will tempt you.
You shouldn’t react to it as something sudden either, and shouldn’t say: “Oh, what is this that has fallen upon me?”, but should understand that if one temptation disappears, then in a few months, or five months, or in a year something else will start tempting you. That’s life. Such is the life of man: in the fall you collect the leaves falling from the trees, the sidewalk is cleared and you see that it is clean; but that doesn’t mean that it will be clean forever. When spring comes again, the leaves will turn green, in the fall they’ll wither, begin to fall again, and you’ll clean them up again. Again and again. Such is the cycle of life: problems; quietness, calmness; difficulties, temptations; quietness, calmness.
Once a young woman came for confession. She had been coming to me for confession for a few years, during which she was going through many different hardships and illnesses. And while she was talking, at one point I remembered her past and said:
– Can you believe it! Do you remember when you first came to confession as a little girl? But now you’re so big (if you start confessing at 17, then in 10 years you’ll be 27. It’s one thing when you’re 17, and another when you’re 27)! Could you have imagined then that you would be going through this now? You were a happy and calm child then, and you didn’t have any problems. Were you able to imagine then that you would go through this?
She was moved and said:
– I had never imagined that in life I would have something like this happen, that I would go through it, that I would undergo surgery, go through such dangers, difficulties and failures.
– Such is life. But this way you’ve grown, and now, after all of this, have become a mature person.
This is how a person becomes stronger, how the fruit ripens and becomes sweet, and afterwards God receives him into Heaven. This is what St. Anthony says: “Expect temptations until the end of your life, and you’ll be saved”.
Someone also asked, “Father, what should I do? Give me some advice, too!”
And he said to him, “Here’s what you’ll do! Always think of yourself humbly, have humility and don’t be an egotist. Second: forget about the past—what’s passed, has passed. Don’t keep digging up the past, so that you don’t endlessly return to it and relive it. It’s gone, it already happened, and you’ve repented of it. Alright, you’ve made mistakes; but life goes on! ‘I didn’t give my child a proper upbringing, I was hard on him, and now he’s the one paying for it’. Well, what do you want to do now? Go mad, commit suicide? You’ve made mistakes in relation to your child, and he’ll make mistakes in relation to his own children. We’re human. No one is going to chop your head off for it. Yes, you’ve made mistakes, but they’re now in the past. The question is what to do next.”
So don’t keep endlessly returning to your old deeds. That’s the second piece of advice. Now the first is humility, to not have a high opinion of yourself. The second is not to return to the past. And the third is: Wherever you may be, watch your tongue, what you say with it; your stomach, what you eat, and most of all—how much you eat; to have self-control. If you follow these things and pay attention to your tongue and stomach, have humility, and do not return to past deeds, then you’ll have peace in life.
Such was the answer St. Anthony gave.
Once St. Anthony had a vision, in which it seemed as if the whole earth was covered with traps—the kind placed in fields and forests to catch animals with, such as foxes and other game. “I saw the tempter, who was tempting people, and was horrified. I saw traps everywhere, and asked God in prayer: ‘My God, how can we get past all of these traps? How do you get through without getting caught and dying?’ I heard a voice that said to me: ‘There is only one way to be saved from these traps—by humility’.”
By humility, which is a thing that I do not completely understand. Humility as in the truth; meaning that you have to recognize your true self. That doesn’t mean that you should start condemning yourself without cause, no. You shouldn’t pretend to be humble, but rather, when someone shows you your mistake you shouldn’t get dizzy-headed and have your legs grow weak from shock, shame and hurt, but should say:
“Yes, that’s correct! Forgive me! I made a mistake!”
Humility is a very difficult task, but it delivers one from all “traps”. It’s hard to accept someone’s remarks with humility and say, “Alright. Forgive me! I won’t do that again!”, and not get offended and start thinking: “My self-esteem has been ruined. I had a different opinion of myself, but it’s been destroyed!”, and not have thoughts and feelings of vulnerability, as if you’ve just lost your dignity.
All of these things testify that egotism is still alive in us. We have egotism living in us that can bear neither any remarks nor words of critique, regardless of whether or not they’re said to us in a friendly way or with enmity. We haven’t learned to be humble at all.
Another time the saint said, “It’s not enough to just practice asceticism—it has to be done with discernment. For I’ve seen some that had mortified themselves through asceticism, committing exorbitant feats; however, having no discernment, ruined everything.”
Be careful with this. Remember how I told you not to go to extremes? You once took every single patristic book, read through all of them and started applying the most extreme things written in them. And then, having received a large book of prayers from someone on Mt. Athos (yes, they pray for hours on end on Mt. Athos), and having heard from one of the fathers: “Read it, if you’d like!” you took the book home and started reading all of these prayers, which were extremely many.
You, however, did not apply discernment. After all, you live in the world, you have a wife, children, duties, work—you cannot undertake such an exemplary prayer rule for two or three hours each night just because that’s how they do it on Mt. Athos. You did a whole lot, but you did it without discernment. And as a result you ended up not wanting to do anything. You came to such exhaustion that you became sick of everything and said, “I don’t want anything anymore! I was left without walks, cafes, football games and movies!”
I’m saying this not because you’re the only one like this, but because that’s something that many people do: They don’t apply discernment, go to extremes, and give up everything that has to do with life in the city, their family, children etc., calling these things a sin. They’re suddenly kindled by an extreme zeal, which comes not from the heart, but from an external coercion that they personally force upon themselves, and from egotism.
Egotism can make one extremely ascetical, and then the person “breaks down” in the end. It’s possible to fast very strictly out of egotism and exhaust yourself to such an extent that you will not even want to hear anything about fasting and will say: “I don’t want anything of the sort; don’t say anything about fasting to me!”
And you’d say to such a person:
“When I told you not to abstain, for example, from vegetable oil (or you tell a child to drink milk: “If your parents told you to drink it, then drink it!”), then you answered:
“No! I’m going to do what God wants!”
But the thing is that you were not doing it for the sake of God, because there’s egotism present. And you don’t listen. Then this extreme, at which you end up by not having discernment, does its own thing, and you become tormented and stop wanting to do anything at all. You end up at another extreme.
Therefore, let’s travel by the royal path, the path of humility, the middle path. So that we don’t end up at first exhausting ourselves by asceticism, but then, because we did not apply discernment, end up losing everything.
(To be continued)