Pearls from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Mystical Sayings
From the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives

Sayings of the Elders

Abba Nistero said: “Whatever path you find your soul longs after in the quest for God, do that, and always watch over your heart’s integrity” (Cursus Completus Patrologiae, PL 73:856).

Abba Anthony said: “Whoever sits in solitude and is quiet has escaped from three wars: those of hearing, speaking, and seeing. Then there is only one war left in which to fight, and that is the battle for your own heart” (PL 73:858).

A monk came to Abba Sisoes and said: “What shall I do, Father, for I have fallen from grace?” And he replied, “Get up again.” The monk came back shortly after and said: “What shall I do now, for I have fallen again?” And the old man said to him, “Just get up again. Never cease getting back up again!” (PL 73:1034).

Apophthegmata Patrum

Abba Antony said: “I no longer fear God. I have come to love him, ‘for perfect love casts out fear’” [1 John 4:18] (Cursus Completus Patrologiae, PG 65:85).

Abba Agathon said: “I have never allowed myself to go to bed while I still felt resentment against a person, and, as far as I was able, I never allowed anyone else to go to bed either, as long as they still felt resentment against me” (PG 65:109).

Sayings of the Egyptian Fathers

Never look down on anyone. You do not know whether the Spirit of God prefers to dwell in you or in them (PL 74:391).

Aphrahat the Persian (4th cent.)

From the moment you start praying, raise your heart upward and turn your eyes downward. Come to focus in your innermost self and there pray in secret to your heavenly Father (Demonstration on Prayer. Patrologia Syriaca, PS 4:13).

How lovely is prayer, and how radiant are its works. Prayer is acceptable to God when it goes with good deeds, and it is heard when it rises out of a spirit of forgiveness. Prayer is always answered when it is pure and sincere. Prayer is powerful when it is suffused with God’s vigor (Patrologia Syriaca, PS 4:16).

Abba Philemon (4th cent.)

By means of silence you can thoroughly cleanse your mind and give it constant spiritual occupation. As the eye turned on sensory objects looks closely at what it sees, so a pure mind that turns toward spiritual things is uplifted by the object of its contemplation. The mind becomes perfect when it enters into the sphere of essential knowledge and is united with God. Having thus attained kingly rank, the mind is no longer poor and it is not carried away by false desires, even if all the kingdoms of the world were offered to it.

Evagrios of Pontus (ca. 346-399)

Prayer emanates from joy and thanksgiving (On Prayer 15. Philokalia 1:178).

Prayer is the remedy for sadness and depression (16. Philokalia 1:178).

Once you learn to be patient you will always pray in great joy (23. Philokalia 1:178).

Always be on your guard against your anger, and then you will not be carried away by other violent desires. Anger gives fuel to all sorts of other passions and always clouds the spiritual eye, disrupting the state of pure prayer (27. Philokalia 1:179).

Sometimes it happens that when you start to pray, you find you can pray well. At other times, even when you have expended great effort, you may find your efforts frustrated. This experience is to make you learn that you must exert yourself constantly, for having once gained the gift of prayer, you must be careful to keep it safe (29. Philokalia 1:179).

Do not pray for your heart’s desires, for they may not entirely harmonize with God’s purposes. Pray instead as you have been taught: “May your will be done in me” [Luke 22:42]. Pray to God this way about everything, that his will might be accomplished in you, for he only desires what is good and useful for your life, whereas you do not always request this (31. Philokalia 1:179).

Who else is good apart from God? So, entrust all your life to him and all will be well with you (33a. Philokalia 1:179).

Do not be upset if you do not immediately receive what you asked God to give you. The Lord wants to give you greater things than you have even thought to pray for – to teach you to persevere in prayer (34a. Philokalia 1:179).

Can you imagine any greater thing than to have communion with God himself and to be wholly absorbed in him? (34b. Philokalia 1:179).

Undistracted prayer is the highest act of the human intellect (35. Philokalia 1:180).

The dark powers are sick with envy against us when we pray, and they will use every conceivable trick to frustrate us spiritually. They endlessly stir up our inner memories to distract us into thoughts and will try to stir our flesh to all kinds of desires, for in this way they think they can hinder the soul’s glorious ascent and its journey to God (47. Philokalia 1:180).

The state of prayer is a condition transcending material obsessions. In profound love it carries up the spirit that loves wisdom to the heights of intelligible reality (53. Philokalia 1:181).

If you want to experience true prayer, then seek to control your anger and your desires. But more than this, you must also strive to liberate yourself from every material thought (54. Philokalia 1:181).

If you pray “in spirit and truth” [John 4:23], you will no longer honor the Creator because of his works but will praise him because of himself (60. Philokalia 1:181).

When your spiritual intellect longs for God so deeply that little by little it loses interest in material things and turns away from all thoughts rooted in sensory perception, or those that rise from our temperament or our memories, and at the same time becomes more and more filled with a sense of reverence and joy, then know that you have drawn near to the threshold of prayer (62. Philokalia 1:182).

When you are praying, do not try to envisage the Godhead within you in any imagined form. Do not let your mind be cast in the mold of any particular figure. Instead, draw close to the Immaterial One immaterially, and then you will understand (67. Philokalia 1:182).

Someone who is tied up cannot run. Just so, the spiritual intellect that is still a slave to its obsessive desires can never see the domain of spiritual prayer, because it is dragged all over the place by compulsive ideations and cannot achieve the necessary intellectual stillness (73. Philokalia 1:183).

If you pray truly, you will discover great confidence, and angels will come to you as they once came to Daniel [Dan. 2:19], and they will enlighten you about the inner meaning of created existences (80. Philokalia 1:183).

As bread is food for the body and holiness is food for the soul, so spiritual prayer is food for the interior mind (101. Philokalia 1:185).

When you stand in prayer and feel that no other joy can be compared to it, then you have indeed discovered true prayer (153. Philokalia 1:189).

If you attain mystical knowledge and experience the delight that rises from it, no longer will the dark spirit of arrogance be a seduction for you, not even if it should offer you all the kingdoms of the world [Mt. 4:8]; for what is there, may I ask, that could surpass the delight of spiritual contemplation? (Praktikos 21. Cursus Completus Patrologiae, PG 40:1228).

When the mind has divested itself of its fallen state and has clothed itself with the state of grace, then in the time of prayer it can even see its own inner condition, which is something like a sapphire or the azure blue of the sky. Scripture calls this the dwelling place of God, which the elders saw on Mount Sinai [Exo. 24:10] (On Discrimination. Philokalia 1:54).

A tree will never blossom without water. Without mystical knowledge the heart will never rise on high (Address to the Monks 117).

Makarios the Great (5th cent.)

When a soul is full of expectant longing, and full of faith and love, God considers it worthy to receive “the power from on high” [Acts 1:8, 2:1-3], which is the heavenly love of the Spirit of God and the heavenly fire of immortal life; and when this happens, the soul truly enters into the beauty of all love and is liberated from its last bonds of evil (Fifty Spiritual Homilies 4.13).

When God created Adam, he did not give him physical wings such as the birds had, for he preferred to give him the wings of the Holy Spirit. These he will return to him at the Resurrection, to raise him up and bear him wherever the Spirit desires. It is these wings that even now the saints possess, so that their spirits can fly up to the kingdom of heavenly comprehensions (5.11).

Sometimes the flame of a lamp can leap up and burn furiously. At other times it burns gently and quietly. Sometimes its light leaps up and emits a great radiance. At other times its small flame gives out only a dim light. This is how it is with the lamp of grace in the soul. It is always lit and giving off illumination, but when it burns with special radiance, it is as if the soul were drunk with love for God. At other times, as God himself decides, the light is still there but it is only a dim glow (8.2).

Sometimes the soul finds rest in the deepest quietness, and joy and perfect peace in perfectly focused spiritual delight and ineffably deep repose. At other times the soul is stirred up by grace and taught lessons in ineffable wisdom and understanding and knowledge of the spirit, in ways that pass beyond all our ability to speak about them. Manifold are the patterns of grace, and most varied are the ways it leads the soul. Sometimes, as God decides, grace gives rest to the soul. At other times it puts it to work (18.9).

As scripture says, “Where your heart is, there also is your treasure” [Mt. 6:21]; and surely, wherever a person’s heart is given, wherever their deepest desire draws them, this is indeed their god. If a man’s heart always longs for God, then God will surely be the Lord of the heart (43.3).

The heart itself is only a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil; there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices; but there, too, are God and the angels; life is there, and the Kingdom; there, too, is light, and heavenly cities, and treasures of grace. All things lie within that little space (43.7).

Diadochos of Photike (5th cent.)

Always wait patiently, with your faith made active by love, until God has given you the illumination to allow you to teach. There is nothing so sad as an intellect engaged in theology when it is devoid of God (On Spiritual Knowledge 7. Philokalia 1:237).

If you can feel the love of God in your heart, know that you are indeed known by God. Inasmuch as we experience the sensation of the love of God in our hearts, we have truly entered into the love of God. From that point onward, we cannot stop longing with all our hearts for the enlightenment of mystical knowledge, until such time as we can feel it entering our very bones to transform us utterly (14. Philokalia 1:238-39).

Just as someone who has not been illuminated should not try to speculate on spiritual mysteries, even so, when the light of the all-holy Spirit sheds its powerful radiance on someone, they too should not try to put it into words. When the soul is drunk with divine love, it wants only to enjoy the glory of the Lord with a voice that is rendered silent (59. Philokalia 1:237).

All God’s gifts to us are beyond all beauty and are the origin of all our goodness, but there is nothing that can set our hearts on fire or move them to the love of goodness itself as much as the gift of divine understanding. It is the firstborn child of God’s grace and the first of the great gifts he gives to the soul. It starts by detaching us from our current obsessive desires and gives us, instead of our longing for corruptible things, a deepening love for the ineffable riches of divine comprehen-sions. From that point onward, the mind catches fire in a blaze of transcendence, so as to become a concelebrant in the liturgy of angels (67. Philokalia 1:255).

Narsai of Edessa (5th cent.)

God hides the mysteries he offers us so that he might teach us to search for them in love (The Parable of Dives and Lazarus 241).

There is no radiance greater than the light of the spirit’s initiation; no wisdom on earth possesses comparable power. It cannot be measured on the scales against pearls or precious gems; no priceless thing can be compared to it; nothing approaches its inner beauty; all other beautiful things fail in comparison. It is more desirable than anything on earth, and its beauty can even lead the world captive in desire, seducing angels and humans alike (The Parable of the Vineyard 59-63).

John Klimakos (ca. 570-649)

Do not be surprised if you fall back into the old ways every day. Do not be disheartened but resolve to do something positive, and without question, the angel who stands guard over you will honor your perseverance (The Ladder 5.30. Cursus Completus Patrologiae, PG 88:777).

The angel Lucifer fell from heaven solely on account of one passion – his pride. It makes me wonder whether it is possible to rise up to heaven solely on the strength of humility (23:12. Cursus Completus Patrologiae, PG 88:968).

If, in the course of your prayers, you feel a special joy or are moved in the heart by something, then stay with it for a while. It is a sign that your guardian angel has come and begun to pray with you (28:11. Cursus Completus Patrologiae, PG 88:1132).

Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662)

Love is a most holy condition of the soul in which it values the mystical knowledge of God above all other existent things. We cannot enter into such a state of love, however, if we are still obsessively clinging to material values (Centuries on Charity 1:1. Philokalia 2:4).

A soul that is yet the victim of its imaginations, that is driven by obsessive desires and brimming with animosities, still stands in need of much purification (1:14. Philokalia 2:5).

If we look inside our hearts and find there even a trace of animosity toward others for the wrongs they have done to us, then we should realize that we are still far removed from the love of God. The love of God absolutely precludes us from hating any human being (1:15. Philokalia 2:5).

Tie the leg of a sparrow to the ground, and no matter how hard it tries to fly, it will be fastened to the earth. In the same way, if your intellect tries to fly up to the mystical knowledge of heavenly realities but has not yet been freed of obsessive passions, it will remain tied fast to the earth (1:85. Philokalia 2:12).

Blessed is that spiritual intellect that travels beyond all existent realities and comes into the endless delight of the divine beauty (1:19. Philokalia 2:5).

If you assiduously concentrate on the interior life, you will become re-strained and patient, kind and humble. Then you will also be able to contemplate, theologize, and pray. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he said, “Walk in the Spirit” [Gal. 5:16] (4:64. Philokalia 2:47).

The Savior told us: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God” [Matt. 5:8], and they will see him, and all the treasures he keeps hidden within, when they have purified themselves by love and self-control. The greater their purification, the clearer their vision (4:72. Philokalia 2:48)

Control the soul’s restless fluctuations by love. Calm its desires by self-control. Give wings to its powers of understanding by prayer. Then the light of your spiritual intellect will never be dimmed (4:80. Philokalia 2:49).

Love and self-control liberate the soul from its obsessions. Reading and reflection deliver the intellect from ignorance. Regular prayer brings the soul in the very presence of God (4:86. Philokalia 2:50).

God alone is good by nature, and only the person who imitates God can be good in moral terms. Such a person has only one aim in life: never to fall away from that single goal that matters, which is our God himself (4:90. Philokalia 2:50).

The soul is like hardening clay if it clings to materiality. It is like wax when it clings to God. It can become like either nature according to its purpose and intent... Any soul that clings to God is softened like wax and receives the impression and seal of divine realities within it. In the Spirit it becomes the very dwelling place of God [Eph. 2:22] (Centuries on Theology 1:12. Philokalia 2:53).

A soul can never attain to the mystical knowledge of God unless and until God himself stoops down in mercy to grasp it and then lift it up to himself. The spiritual intellect of a human being lacks this power, of itself, to ascend and participate in divine illumination. God must first draw the intellect on high – insofar as it is possible for the humanity – and then illuminate it with the rays of divine light (1:31. Philokalia 2:56).

The spiritual intellect becomes freed from attachments to bodily forms and transcends the sensation of delight or sorrow when it is bonded and made one with God, who is truly all that we long for, desire, and love (Centuries of Various Texts 1:54. Philokalia 2:100).

Dorotheos of Gaza (6th cent.)

If anyone truly desires to do the will of God with all their heart, God will never abandon them but will constantly guide them along the paths of his will. If someone really sets their heart on the will of God, God will find even a little child to illuminate so as to communicate his will to that person. But if a person does not truly desire the will of God, even if they were to go to a prophet, God would put it into the heart of that prophet to give a response comparable to the deceit that was in the seeker’s heart (Discourse 5. Cursus Completus Patrologiae, PG 88:1684).

Abba Philemon of Egypt (7th cent.)

Keep a careful watch on yourself. Do not allow yourself to be swept away by external obsessions. The tumultuous movements of the soul, in particular, can be rendered quiet by stillness. But if you keep encouraging and stimulating them, they will start to terrorize you and can disorder your whole life. Once they are in control, it is as hard to heal them as it is to soothe a sore that we can’t stop scratching (The Discourse. Philokalia 2:242).

A monk once said to Abba Philemon: “I am very conscious of how my mind constantly wanders all over the place, drifting after things that are not good for it. What can I do, father, to be delivered?”
     And he hesitated for a little while and then replied: “This is a remnant of the obsessions your external life inflicts on you. It still troubles you because you have not yet reached the heights of perfect longing for God. The longing for the experience of God has not yet fallen on you like fire” (Philokalia 2:244).

Theodoros the Ascetic (7th cent.)

We cannot acquire pure prayer unless we cling to God with an open heart, since it is God alone who gives the gift of prayer to one who prays, and God who teaches us mystical knowledge (Spiritual Chapters 8. Philokalia 1:305).

It is beyond our power to prevent obsessive thoughts from troubling and disturbing the soul. But it is within our power to forbid such imaginings to linger within and to forbid such obsessions to control us (9. Philokalia 1:305).

The Lord makes his abode in the souls of the humble, for the hearts of the proud are full of shameful obsessions. Nothing strengthens the obsessions so much as arrogant thoughts; nothing uproots the weeds of the soul so quickly as blessed humility (27. Philokalia 1:308).

You should seek to have, as your friends, persons who will be of help to you in the way of life you want. Let your friends be lovers of peace, those who are spiritual soul mates, and those who are saintly (54. Philokalia 1:312-13).

Pray night and day. Pray when you are happy, and pray when you are sad. Pray with fear and trembling, and with a watchful and vigilant mind, that your prayer might be acceptable to the Lord (60. Philokalia 1:314).

Love has rightly been called the capital city of all virtues, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets [Mt. 22:40; Rm. 13:10]. So let us make every effort to attain this holy love. By means of love we will be liberated from the tyranny of evil obsessions and be raised up high to heaven on the wings of goodness, and we will even see the face of God, so far as this is possible for human nature (82. Philokalia 1:319).

When you are in love, surely your constant concern is to be near the beloved at any and every opportunity, and to avoid anything that would hinder you from being in the company and society of your loved one. So it is when someone loves God. One constantly desires to be with him and speak with him. 
     This can only be achieved through pure prayer, so let us apply our-selves to prayer with all our strength, for it makes us become like the Lord. This is the meaning of the scripture that says: “O God, my God, I cry to you at dawn; my soul has thirsted after you” [Ps. 63:1]. This person who cries to God at dawn signifies the spiritual intellect that has withdrawn from every evil and that has been wounded to the heart by the love of God (94. Philokalia 1:322).

John of Karpathos

Sometimes people find themselves brightly illuminated and refreshed by God’s grace for a while, but then this grace may be taken away, and they can fall into depression and start grumbling and even give up dispiritedly instead of energetically renewing their prayers to call down again that assurance of salvation. Such behavior is like an ungrateful beggar taking alms at the palace door and then walking off indignantly because he was not invited in to dine with the king himself (To the Monks of India 70. Philokalia 1:291).

Hesychios (7th cent.)

Once the heart has been perfectly emptied of mental images, it gives birth to divine and mystical concepts that play within it just as fish and dolphins play in a calm sea. As the sea is rippled when a soft breeze moves over it, so is the heart’s abyss moved by the Holy Spirit (On Watchfulness 156).

Thalassios the Libyan (7th cent.)

Love is the only thing that can bind together God and his creation and bring about social harmony (Centuries on Love 1:5. Philokalia 2:205).

Love and self-control purify the soul. Pure prayer makes the spiritual intellect radiant (1:11. Philokalia 2:206).

Isaac of Nineveh (7th cent.)

The love of God is fiery by nature, and when it descend in an extraordinary degree onto a person, it throws that soul into ecstasy (The Ascetical Homilies 35).

Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022)

Beloved one, if you really want to advance your salvation, you must practice this method of prayer: Begin with total obedience and a conscience that is innocent in the sight of God. Then your mind must keep watch over your heart during the time you are at prayer, as if patrolling it all the time. From the center of your heart, from the heart’s very depths, your mind should send up its prayer (On the Three Methods of Prayer. Philokalia 5:84-85).

You need to gain three things before all others: the first is freedom from the anxieties of life; the second is a clear conscience; the third is complete detachment, such that your thoughts no longer buzz around materialities. When you have acquired these things, then sit down by yourself in a quiet place, out of the way of everyone, and close the door and withdraw your intellect from all worthless and transient things... search inside your inner self for the place where the heart is, where all the powers of the spiritual intellect have their dwelling. In the beginning you will find only darkness, dryness, and obscurity. But if you persist, practicing this task attentively night and day, you will find – and how marvelous it is – the dawning of unceasing joy (Philokalia 5:86-87).

The solitary is innocent of the world and continually speaks with God alone. He sees him and is seen by him. He loves him and is loved by him, and so becomes light itself, since he is enlightened in a manner past all speech (Hymns of Divine Love 3).

If you wish to learn how to descend into the heart and remain there I will tell you. First you must observe the following three conditions: You must be free from all cares, not only from vain and unholy cares but even from good things. In other words, you should be dead to eve-rything; your conscience should be pure and it should not denounce you in anything. You should be completely free from passionate attachments; your thoughts should not be inclined toward anything worldly. 
   Then sit alone in a quiet place, close the door, take your mind from every temporal and vain thing. Bow your head toward your chest, and stay attentively inside of yourself, not in the head but in the heart. Holding the mind there with your inner eyes watch your breathing. With your mind find the place of the heart and let it abide there. In the beginning you will experience darkness and discomfort, but if you will continue this activity of attention without interruption, you will attain unceasing joy. If the mind continues with this activity, it will find the place of the heart and will see things of which it was previously ignorant and could never have hoped to find. It will see the open spaces within the heart and will see itself as entirely radiant with light and full of discernment and perception.

Your mind should guard your heart in time of prayer; the mind should constantly descend into the heart and from the depths of the heart offer up prayer to God. You should do all this until such time as you taste the sweetness of the Lord. When finally the mind is in the heart and it tastes how sweet the Lord is, then it will not wish to leave the heart but will say with St. Peter, “Lord, it is wonderful for us to be here” [Matt. 17:4]; then the mind will constantly look into the heart, and if it wanders, it will return there again and again.

Translated by John A. McGuckin

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