Thoughts on the spiritual life
by Bishop Theophan the Recluse
"All the articles you've sent contain instructions which are almost exclusively monastic. They don't apply to laymen. That is, at least, the opinion of those with whom I've shared some of these articles."
They're wrong. It seems to me that those instructions can apply to anyone eager for salvation. This desire teaches one how to make use of everything, even to adapt what is strictly monastic for one's own benefit. But no instructive writings will suit a person unconcerned over his salvation. It is said that one heart informs another. Those who wrote these instructions gave them from their heart; these instructions developed in their hearts as a fruit of contemplation and experience. They're an echo of their heart's disposition. The spirit which inspired them and all their inclinations, was a spirit of zeal for salvation-their own and others'. The same spirit is reflected in their words and permeates all their writings. Now, anyone eager for salvation who reads their instructions will go beyond the external letter to their spirit, and will, by virtue of this consuming zeal, enter into a like disposition with the writers and will be in sympathy with all those affections which filled their hearts and from their hearts penetrated into their writings and constitute their principal content.
The mind of those seeking salvation, or those dispositions with which it is essential to familiarize oneself on the path to salvation, are the same for everyone, monastic or non-monastic. The difference lies only in external actions by which their inclinations are expressed. For this reason I would say that any instructions which have been compiled by a hermit and for a hermit are sweet spiritual food for all those zealous for salvation. There they will find what they need and will be able to apply it to their particular situation.
After all, monks are Christians, and those who embrace monasticism exert themselves in spiritual labors for the very purpose of becoming true Christians. And laymen are also Christians, and they must likewise apply themselves in order to become true Christians. Clearly, monastics and laymen are united in this primary task. How, then, can one say that instructions addressed to monastics don't apply also to laymen? There are points which don't apply to laymen, but these concern only rules of outward conduct, not the inner ordering of the soul, not the spirit. The latter should be the same in all people, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:5). This is why those laymen who are zealous concerning their salvation read-and never tire of reading-the ascetic patristic writings of St. Macarius of Egypt, Isaac the Syrian, John Climacus, Abba Dorotheus, Ephraim the Syrian, the Philokalia, and the like. As for those who shun the instructions in those articles, you yourself see that it must be said of them that they have not the spirit of Christ. It is a harsh saying, but what can be done!
You should think for yourself: what is the subject of these articles? It is how to conquer the passions, how to cleanse the soul, how to implant good intentions, how to pray and how to succeed in prayer, how to order one's thoughts and to keep oneself from constant distraction, etc. Is this not the concern of every Christian? Have not the Lord and His apostles given us commandments concerning all of these? The Lord said, Watch and pray (Matt. 26:41); Watch ye therefore, and pray always (Luke 21:36). This commandment concerning vigilance towards oneself is a principal spiritual endeavor; elsewhere it is also called sobriety, from the words of the Apostle who wrote: Be sober, be vigilant (I Peter 5:8). But so that no one would think this was necessary only for the apostles, or only for proficient Christians like them, the Lord added: and what I say unto you I say unto all: Watch (Mark 13:37).
What right have we to regard all these instructions concerning vigilance, sobriety and spiritual watchfulness-the main subject of ascetic writings and of those articles sent to you-as applying only to monastics and not to laymen?! Likewise, when it is said, straight is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life (Matt. 7:14), it tells us that they are strait and narrow not only for monastics but for everyone mindful of entering into eternal life; and consequently, those living on the wide path won't find place there-be they monastics or laymen. It is also written that those who labor for their salvation are temperate in all things (I Cor. 9:25), that we must mortify our members which are upon the earth (Col. 3:5); that we must seek those things which are above, set our affections on things above, not on things on the earth (Col. 3:1-2); pray without ceasing (I Thess. 5:17), and do such that our life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).
Thus, everyone without exception is pledged to asceticism, to mortifying the flesh, to cutting oneself from everything earthly, to unceasing prayer, and to losing one's self in God. And this is precisely what these monastic articles are all about!
Nowadays one hears: who can possibly satisfy this? who doesn't know about this, and who doesn't admit it? But that's not what we're talking about. After all, it's not God's law that we must bend beneath our inclinations (usually referred to as weaknesses), but our necks that we must bow beneath the yoke of the holy and immutable law of God! Everyone should know that the gracious and merciful God does not burden us beyond measure, but neither does He allow indulgences. So there's nothing here to discuss. Those who objected belong to the category of people who usually say: "But I'm not spiritual, I'm no monk!" or "After all, I'm a layman," and use this as an excuse for not strictly following the Gospel commandments. But do they really understand what they're saying? In excusing themselves from fulfilling certain rules-even hearing about them-do they not number themselves among those belonging to the world, which lies in opposition to the Gospel? This is frightful. The world is the realm of perdition. The Lord, speaking through the Apostles, says this about Christians: If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you (John 15:19).
Clearly, true Christians, even ordinary laymen, do not belong to this frightful, Christ-hating and God-forsaken world, and do not consider even a single word uttered by the Lord Jesus Christ and His holy Apostles as foreign to them, nor do they shun any teaching belonging to the holy Orthodox Church; they neither disdain nor turn away from it.
But enough of this. It's deplorable that this way of thinking is becoming more and more widespread. Of course, God's truth will not suffer from this; it remains unchanged forever. But it is lamentable that those who distance themselves from God's truth will perish. They are like those who think they can blunt the edge of a sword with their fist. Will they succeed? No. The sword of the word of God is indestructable. And it is hard for us to kick against the pricks (cf. Acts 9:5).
Translated from Misli o Dukhovnoi Zhizni #87, Moscow 1908.