“Let’s be Christians Twenty-Four Hours a Day”

A Conversation with an Athonite Ascetic

Hieroschemamonk Ștefan (Nutescu) Hieroschemamonk Ștefan (Nutescu) Fr. Ștefan (Nuțescu) took monastic vows in Sihastria Monastery while Elder Cleopa (Ilie) was still alive. In 1989, Fr. Ștefan left for Holy Mount Athos. At present, Elder Ștefan is the abbot and spiritual father of the Cell of the Annunciation of the Romanian Lacu Skete, which belongs to the Monastery of St. Paul.

The Romanian Lacu Skete, dedicated to the holy Great Martyr Demetrius, is located on the northeast of the Athos peninsula, at a four-hour’s walk from the Monastery of St. Paul. It was founded by monks from Romanian and Bessarabian monasteries. The first documented mention of it dates to the beginning of the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century, there were more than thirty active cells in Lacu Skete, where more than 100 monks labored in asceticism. Today there are thirteen cells with fifty monks.

Father, how does sin affect the soul?

—The Fathers said that sin has a paralyzing effect. With every sin committed, the devil wins a place for himself in the soul of a man. Thus goes the invisible battle between the grace of God and sin. With every sin grace recedes; and sin paralyzes a man’s mental powers, especially his will and mind. You have heard what the holy Apostle Paul says: For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do (Rom. 7:19). Christian ascetics are conscious of this mortifying effect of sin and try to purify themselves by any means possible.

Fr. Paisios says that with every sin, you give rights to the devil; you open the door to your soul to him. And Abba Dorotheos, speaking of the house of the soul, teaches how to lay the foundation, how to erect the walls, then the roof and the windows, and he says we should put bars on the windows, so as not to allow sin to enter. These bars signify the guarding of the five senses, so sin cannot enter through them.1

Today many people no longer understand how important spiritual work is in everyday life. Without it, the life of a man is reduced to a struggle for the biological, to ensure a minimum of comfort and well being, and that’s it. But this is not what every Christian should be concerned with; we should be concerned with salvation.

You spoke of spiritual work. What should it look like?

—Above all, it should be done under the guidance of a spiritual father. He is a spiritual family doctor. It’s like going to a pharmacy and buying medicine with a doctor’s prescription. You’re not buying it on your own whim; after all—it could kill you. Spiritual work means doing what puts us before the face of Christ: the Gospel commandments, the commandments of the Church. These are all simple things: “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was in the hospital, I was in prison,” and so on (cf. Mt. 25:35-40)—simple things about how we relate to ourselves, others, and God.

For example, if you get physically sick, the doctor will prescribe a diet for you—a kind of a fast. But the Church prescribes a more effective eating regime, valuable not only for the body but also for eternal life; because the body, as a rule, gets sick because the soul is sick. The soul becomes ill from sin, and then the body becomes ill. It’s related.

The therapeutic methods of the Church are clear: fasting, prayer, confession, Communion, going to church, patience, being merciful to others, the Ten Commandments. The Church’s commandments are very simple. If someone observes them, he will be protected from the devil and work on the building up of his soul, as teach the Holy Fathers. The soul is like an icon an artist paints in his studio and covers with a canvas until it’s ready; then when the customer comes to take it, everyone is delighted with its beauty. In this life, we work on the beauty of our souls in secret, that is, under cover of the body, and then the state of our soul will be revealed to the entire world. This work consists in depicting the image of God within ourselves. This applies to everyone, whether a layman, priest, or bishop.

True happiness comes from fighting sin

Some people live without any restraint: They think they’ll lose something if they start to lead a Church life; that it will force them to give up certain pleasures. They feel like they’ll lose their “happiness.”

—The mentality of today’s Christians is completely distorted. We’re called Christians when we are followers of Christ. That means we should do what Christ did, doesn’t it? Any disciple follows in the footsteps of his teacher. “I’m a disciple of so-and-so,”—“and I’m a disciple of so-and-so.” And whose are we, modern Christians? Some confessors use the expression “nominal Christians,” that is, “Christians in name”—which is exactly what we have become. Because we are called “Christians,” we are called “Christ’s,” but we are not Christ’s, because we don’t do what Christ says. We no longer have the awareness that we are bearing a cross, that we participate in the Cross and Passion of the Savior, and therefore we see a different Christianity.

This happens even with those Christians who regularly go to Church and confess and commune. Their thoughts are limited to thinking about how to make everything good for themselves: to have healthy children, a good salary, to lack for nothing, to not get sick, to not suffer any harm—and, finally, to think they will receive, on top of everything else, the Kingdom. Some may receive it—we don’t know, it’s the judgment of God—but the problem is that a Christian doesn’t think about the fact that he is Christ’s and that, participating in the life and Passion of Christ, you identify yourself with Christ.

Many people write us letters asking: “Father, pray for God to help me!” I had a telephone conversation with one girl from Thessaloniki who is tormented by a devil. I asked her: “Do you go to church?” “I do.” “Do you fast?” “Well… I haven’t dealt with this issue.” “Wait a minute—how have you not dealt with it? What, are you sick?” “No.” But Orthodox fasting is the most fundamental thing. It’s a means that leads to salvation; it’s very important on our spiritual path.

Does not Christ say: This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting (Mt. 17:21)?

—Yes. You’re a Christian, you go to church, and… “And do you confess?” “Well... not really.” “Well, there’s the problem, and the impure one won’t leave you alone until you correct yourself.” She said: “I’ll try.” If that’s what they say, they aren’t going to try too hard! If she had said: “Father, pray for me to lay a good beginning, and from today I will begin to do it”—then we could still hope that she’ll take up the task. But “I’ll try” is all in some more or less distant future, if she should remember that she needs to do something.

In the Patericon, one abba says: “The word is taken away from the elders.”2 Why taken away? Because the disciples no longer ask in order to apply the word in practice, but only for the sake of appearance: “Let’s go see this elder; let’s see what he says!” That is, just for the sake of some impression. They don’t understand that true blessedness lies in spiritual work—this is where you will find joy and peace of mind.

We need to be liberated from sin, not receive material benefits. This is clear, and all the saints say that true blessedness comes from the struggle with sin. Once one nun from Souroti asked Elder Paisios: “Father, I have many temptations. Can you tell me the answer to my problems?” The Elder said to her: “Yes! I have found it! I’ll give it to you.” She rejoiced that she would learn the secret of how to deliver herself from temptations. But the Elder said to her: “Fight your temptations!” And she sunk.

Thus, we have to enter the fight. There’s no other way! We live in a state of constant war: You’re either going towards God or the devil. There is no middle, neutral state. You’re either with One or the other.

That means we need to go deeper within ourselves and take everything seriously.

—Without a doubt. The Holy Fathers teach us that all of a Christian’s work is within him. The Savior says: The Kingdom of God is within you (Lk. 17:21). And Fr. Sophrony (Sakharov) famously said that all mankind is like a pyramid, with Christ at the top, but—the pyramid is upside down. To reach Christ, you have to descend, not ascend: Go down, into the depths of humility. And the further you descend, the more responsibility for others increases. The Savior is at the bottom, at the top of the pyramid, that is, in the depths of humility; but at the same time, He bears the burden of the sins of all people.

This is what our work is—descending into humility helps you be aware of your responsibility for your soul and for people like you. Of course, great saints such as St. Silouan had “prayer for the entire world.” We don’t realize it anymore. We’re so superficial! This is facilitated by the media and this whole demonic society, which not only doesn’t help us prosper spiritually, it doesn’t even give us the chance to keep to one course—let’s say, moral, not to mention spiritual, which is much higher.

Let’s be Christians twenty-four hours a day

We live in this world, full of advertisements for all sorts of filth and pornography. How can we remain outside of it while being in it? How can we keep our souls in touch with God?

—Today’s youth won’t be judged as the youth who lived fifty years ago. As Elder Paisios said, there was only one madman then, and they would put him in a tower. Now we’ve reached a point where there’s only one person of healthy mind, and the madmen imprison him in the tower. So much has the mentality and spirituality of man changed. But, despite this demonic state of the world, today’s Christian should fulfill his duty—to cleave to the Church. And there the priestly duty already begins to act.

Basing himself on the words of the Psalmist: Their sound is gone forth through all the earth, and their words unto the end of the world (Ps. 18:5), Fr. Moses the Athonite spoke about the importance and significance of the priest in a parish. In our day, God no longer sends priests to the ends of the Earth, but only to a parish; but many don’t do this work either. Of course, it’s one thing to be a priest in the world, and another to be a hieromonk in a monastery. A lay priest is called and sent into the world to preach the Gospel in season and out of season (cf. 2 Tim. 4:2). And to each will be rendered according to his labors.

But still, how can we keep ourselves as pure as possible from the world?

—By the Sacraments of the Church, especially confession and Communion, and, of course, the asceticism that everyone should bear—fasting, prayer, and most of all, the guarding of the senses. In many cases, the guarding of the senses is more effective than fasting and other podvigs—continuous guarding.

The five senses—the Holy Fathers call them windows through which sin enters the heart of man. Sin enters through the eyes, through the ears, through taste, through smell, and through touch. Above all, it comes through the eyes, through obscene gazing. According to the Holy Fathers, simple gazing is innocent, but gazing with obscene perseverance is already passionate. Therefore, it’s very important to protect the eyes, and people should be careful not to look at anything promiscuously. Because when you open the shutters of the windows and allow sin to enter within, the mind is damaged.

Do you see? God has ordained that sin by deed cannot be so easily carried out—it requires certain conditions; but sin of the mind is accomplished immediately. Therefore, the Savior, comparing the precepts of the Old and New Testaments, says in the Gospel: “The Old Testament said this,” but I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (Mt. 5:27-28).

Or there’s browsing the internet, which has become irreplaceable in the lives of young people. Can you tell them not to watch TV or look at the internet anymore? Who will listen to you? Very few. If they at least kept the situation under control, so the internet wouldn’t take over them, wouldn’t control their lives… But the ideal case is when you cut it all off.

We’re talking about guarding the senses, but what to do if Romania sells 90 million newspapers a month where the majority of articles are gossip, erotica, lies, and human degradation? 90 million! What kind of guarding are we talking about? It’s one thing to pass a billboard with an obscene image, and another to specifically buy a newspaper to see the “girl from the fifth page.”3

—People don’t realize what’s good and what’s sin anymore. They therefore fling open the gates and allow all sorts of muck in, and they think it’s normal. Later they want to liberate themselves from it all, but they no longer know how. When you offer someone the methods of the Church, at first he rejects them. There are people who ask us for prayers, prayers, and prayers. You pray for them, but their problem isn’t resolved. God helps them thanks to the Liturgies we celebrate, but they haven’t resolved to change their lives.

Our Orthodoxy is a way of life, and until you assimilate this way of life, you can’t solve your problems. This is the way of life revealed by God, brought by God from Heaven—our true nature, and it should be ours in every moment. A Christian must be a Christian twenty-four hours a day. As St. Paisios says, all problems must be solved through the prism of the Gospel, for otherwise there will be punishment from God.

Orthodoxy is the correct way of life, which we must make our own

Which virtues can we cultivate in our times?

—People often understand virtue, or good deeds, as alms, given in the form of money or food. It’s a material good deed, and it has its meaning. Your mercy comes from your heart and comforts and eases the pain of another. But we see in the Acts of the Apostles that people brought everything they had, to the feet of the Apostles and then waited to be taken care of and fed—they were people too, after all (cf. Acts 4:34-37). And who took care of this? When the Apostles saw that the community was growing (there were 2-3,000 of them), and they had to leave the word and serve at tables, they chose deacons to take care of the tables (cf. Acts 5), that is, they gave the alms that we now extol as the only and greatest—alms of the body, and they dedicated themselves to preaching the word of God—the greatest alms of the Apostles and their successors; that is, the priests, monks, and every Christian. At Baptism, every one of us, as a little apostle, is given a mission—to preach and defend the Christian faith wherever it exists. These are the greatest alms, for it directly concerns eternal life.

St. Ignatius spoke wonderfully about the things of fallen nature,4 inasmuch as many Protestants, Roman Catholics, and others give much alms—more than the typical Orthodox person. And some ask: “Why shouldn’t they be saved?” And the saint clearly answers: “You have seen Cornelius the Centurion, a pagan, who came from the Romans. He was merciful, wasn’t he? And at some point he had a vision: Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God (Acts 10:4). That is, they were pleasing to God. But they weren’t enough, because he didn’t connect them with Christ. Therefore, it was said to him: ‘Go to Simon the Tanner, and they will tell you what to do’ (cf. Acts 10:5-6). Thus, he wasn’t limited just to alms.” Every founder of a religion has some moral precepts: Be good, don’t kill others, and so on. But if they’re not connected with Christ, they won’t have any value.

A person who is laden with worldly cares no longer understands how to fulfill the teachings of Christ in practice.

—There is a lack of catechetical training and determination to enter the fight. The problem of the modern Christian is survival. They all call us and write to us: “Father, pray for me to find a job, so I won’t be left without work,” and so on, but no one asks: “How can I be purified of sin? How can I enter the spiritual struggle?” I’d be surprised if there was a single one in the last several years…

But if he solved these problems, then others would be resolved…

—Without a doubt. The word of the Gospel is true: Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Mt. 6:33). But we don’t believe in the Gospel anymore! St. Andrew of Crete says: “The Gospel is no longer active!”—that is, the Gospel has become a dead letter, alas. St. Mark the Ascetic says about holy Baptism: “It’s a Mystery that operates according to the measure that you fulfill the commandments.”5 Otherwise, it remains a potential energy: It is within you, but inactive. According to the measure that you fulfill the commandments, this energy is gradually activated and becomes operative. And you can reach the measure of working miracles.

Because, in fact, the calling of a Christian is to be a son of God…

—Of course. But the enemy’s work lately is to give a completely different meaning to man’s religiosity, which he cannot remove from his soul, as Fr. Stăniloae said. Therefore he tries to give it a different meaning, to introduce a different religion, rather than the true one. Orthodoxy descended from Heaven; it is the correct way of life, which we must internalize, and thus take up our abode in Heaven. But very few still live by it. Orthodoxy is a practical exercise, not philosophical speculation.

The Cell of the Annunciation The Cell of the Annunciation Elder Ștefan arranged, brought to a flourishing state, and spiritually revived the Cell of the Annunciation. The typikon of Mt. Athos is followed there, with nighttime services, and during the day the monks, of whom there are ten today, fulfill their obediences of making incense and candles, sewing monastic vestments, laboring in the garden, and translating soul-profiting literature from Greek to Romanian. The Cell of the Annunciation carries out active and varied missionary work, including with its own blog, “Athonite Witness” (https://marturieathonita.ro/).

Athonite Cell of the Annunciation, 1977. Far right: Archimandrite Cleopa (Ilie) Athonite Cell of the Annunciation, 1977. Far right: Archimandrite Cleopa (Ilie) Fr. Ștefan is widely known as a translator of books about Elder Paisios the Athonite. He has also translated into Romanian and published dozens of books with the lives and spiritual instructions of the Athonite fathers, and also with Athonite Byzantine music, including Spiritual Asceticism Vol. 1-3, Spiritual Sobriety Vol. 1-2, Athonite Musical Bouquet, Bouquet of Prayers, The Snare of Astrology, Pseudo-Orthodoxy: Questions and Answers, and many others. He founded the Evanghelismos Publishing House for this purpose, the work of which can be supported using the following information for Heiroschemamonk Ștefan:

A.C.C.: 6439 01 0011390
IBAN: GR63 0171 4390 0064 3901 0011 390

Schitul Lacu
P.O. Box 26, Karyes
63086 Sf. Munte Athos

1 Cf. Abba Dorotheos, Discourses and Sayings, chapter 14, “On Building Up Virtues and Their Harmony”

2 Cf. The Ancient Patericon, Chapter 3.35 (18), “Memorable Sayings. On Abba Felix”

3 “The Girl from the Fifth Page” is the name of a popular Romanian rap song about today’s girls, who endemically dream of being photographed for an erotic magazine.

4 Cf. St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov). The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, Chapter 37: Concerning Almsgiving

5 Cf. The Philokalia, Vol. 1. “Instructions of St. Mark, Extracted From His Other Words,” 13.

Hieroschemamonk Ștefan Nuțescu,
Translated by Jesse Dominick



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