The following text is from Counsels and Instructions of a Spiritual Father To The Nuns of The Moscow Joy of All Who Sorrow Monastery, From the Guidance Of The Great Ascetics and Teachers of Monastic Life, compiled by the spiritual father of the Moscow Joy of All Who Sorrow Convent, Hieromonk Joseph (Moscow 1913). The book was written at the request of the nuns, who asked him for ongoing guidance in the monastic life. As is written in the preface, it is "addressed to the inhabitants of women's monasteries, to all who wish to step upon the path of monastic life, as well as to pious laywomen, who will find here a multitude of soul-saving counsels, and draw from it great profit for their souls." Fr. Joseph slightly changed the texts he cited in order to apply them to nuns, but these instructions are aimed at all spiritual strugglers, regardless of gender.
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What is expected of those who desire to dedicate themselves to monastic labors:
1. First of all, to pray greatly and fervently to God and to ask His help in this matter.
2. To test yourself: are you firmly resolved to endure anything grievous [all difficulties] until your very death?
3. To ask God with all your soul that He would show you the monastery, the place of your ascetic struggle, and the mother abbess—your instructress and guide in the monastic life.
4. To ask and learn, to gather the necessary information from other people.
5. Having found what you are seeking, to commit yourself in perfect obedience to your superior, for this virtue—sincere obedience—is the main, most necessary and good fruit-bearing virtue in the life of a nun.
In this way, by making requests in prayer, and not by self-willed wandering in trackless lands, a nun may achieve success in the interior life and escape the deceptions, attacks and snares everywhere laid by the invisible enemies of our salvation.
The Fundamental Rule of Monastic Life
The entire ranks of Godly-wise fathers and holy ascetics assures us by their counsels that whosoever desires to undoubtedly save herself in monasticism and to pass through the field of this struggle with profit for her soul, it is necessary, especially at the beginning, to have obedience; that is, to submit her will to the superior, who is experienced in the spiritual life—to do everything and to strive to think in agreement with her counsels and instructions, and also with the instructions of her spiritual father, but at the same time to diligently study the Holy Scriptures and works of the holy ascetical fathers.
This is the beginning of a correct monastic life. But this whole life, encompassing at times many years and even decades, should consist of an uninterrupted succession of spiritual labors—external ones performed by the body, and internal ones, by the powers of the soul. It is not sufficient for a nun to have only physical prayers, that is, prostrations, long psalmody and so on in this vein; interior work is also necessary—attention to oneself, guarding of the heart.
Physical Labors of a Nun: Fasting Vigil and Physical Prayer
1. Fasting and temperance are absolutely necessary for a struggler.
2. Fasting is not a virtue in and of itself, but rather only an instrument of virtue, that is a means and aid toward the acquisition of the virtues of purity and chastity.
3. A fast should be kept in mind and soul; the second, as guarding yourself from all that is unpleasing to God, is necessary for everyone at all times, while physical fasting should be conducted with great care and at the advice of those more experienced. This fast should not be beyond measure, but moderate and in accordance with a person's physical strength, so that the ascetic labor may be brought to its completion.
A young, sturdy and strong woman should wear herself out with appropriate fasting, according to the advice of her eldress or spiritual father, for otherwise it is difficult and even impossible to preserve physical purity. An older person who is sickly and altogether weak in body should, avoiding any excess, moderately strengthen her powers, and exchange the severity in fasting that is inaccessible to her due to bodily weakness for abstinence from all evil deeds, words and thoughts. The true podvig of a nun actually consists in this. The inability to fast severely because of one's physical weakness does not prevent one from achieving spiritual progress.
In our sad times, zeal for labors of fasting is apparently waning, and an inclination towards slackness is noticeable in the majority; but perhaps such zealots of labor and podvig may be found who might ask: "How is it that many of the saints, perhaps almost all of them, undertook great labors of fasting—for long periods of time eating nothing at all, and receiving great gifts from God: clairvoyance, healing and various miracles? Why shouldn't we emulate them with whatever strength we can find, and fast often and severely?"
The Holy Hierarch Basil the Great said: "One must exercise oneself in abstinence, which serves as an indispensable guardian of chastity and a sovereign over the mind, not allowing it to lunge here and there. But we think to determine abstinence not only as abstinence from foods, but first of all as abstinence from the roaming of the eyes. For what advantage is there if while abstaining from food, you devour with your eyes the lust of fornication, or eagerly listen with your ears to vain and devilish talk? There is no profit in abstaining from food without abstaining also from boasting, high-mindedness, vainglory and other passions."
Elder Basil of Moldavia writes: "Authentically it is not by fasting alone, but by fasting with humility that people are victorious over the invisible enemies of our salvation."
St. John Climacus writes of vigilance: "The vigilant eye cleanses the mind, but long sleeping hardens the soul.
Vigilance is the quenching of fleshly fires, the deliverance from dreams, the filling of the eyes with tears, the softening of the heart, the preservation from thoughts, the best furnace for burning the food consumed, the subjection of evil spirits, the binding of the tongue, and the expulsion of daydreaming.
Excessive sleep is the cause of forgetfulness; while vigilance purifies the memory." (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Homily 20.)
But vigilance, like fasting, should also not be beyond measure, but in moderation and according to a person's physical strength.
Half the night, six or five hours a day—that is the amount of sleep designated by the holy fathers for a healthy person, as a general rule for moderate podvig and preserving one's strength and health. They also allow a short rest in the afternoon of about one hour.
It is necessary for a woman in a monastery who is laboring for the salvation of her soul to pray at night or attend the nightly praise of God—that is, Matins, for this is the best time for prayer. The rest and sleep needed by the body should be designated so that she receives before and after Matins about six hours per day, and if she be in strength, a little less. But undoubtedly in this, just as along every step in monastic life, except for one's own labor and zeal, the counsel of experienced eldresses or a spiritual father is needed.
Man is composed of soul and body, and therefore when he prays he should pray not only with his spirit, but with his body. Bodily prayer, or the bodily labor of prayer, should express itself in patient standing during church services and during prayers in the cell with prostrations. Bodily prayer is inseparable from spiritual prayer, and therefore its order is determined by the rules described below for spiritual prayer in various instances.
Translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees)