Saint Joseph was a Greek monk who achieved the heights of theosis on Mount Athos in the middle of the 20th century. His perfection of hesychasm (advanced interior prayer) caused many monastics to follow him, including Elder Ephraim, who would later establish over a dozen monasteries in the United States and Canada, one of which I visited. My Elder Joseph The Hesychast is an excellent biography of Saint Joseph as recollected by Elder Ephraim and his disciples.
One warning I have to state about this book is that it features a multitude of visions and miracles. If your faith is not yet at the point where you believe miracles are naturally occurring among God’s most faithful then you may be skeptical with the book’s content.
Physical and spiritual labor cannot be separated
Bodily ascesis is, of course, only one aspect of the spiritual struggle, but based on this one aspect, one can surmise a person’s overall spiritual zeal, because he who is zealous in material things is also zealous in spiritual matters.
“He who is eager to labor physically is also eager to labor spiritually. Physical labor done for the right reason wonderfully helps a monk to repent, mourn, weep, and pray.”
Physical asceticism among Christians has been lost. Most Christians in the United States happen to be Protestants and they do not fast, perform prostrations, or otherwise see mortification of the body as providing the means to become closer to God, but these works stem from faith to better control our passions and separate from the material kingdoms of this world to ultimately reach the Heavenly Kingdom.
Beware of giving and receiving compliments
One day Papa-Ananias said to him, “Geronda, is there anyone else in the entire Holy Mountain who mindfully and seriously practice hesychasm with praxis and theoria? I doubt it. You are the only one.”
He was momentarily enticed by this compliment, and he looked as if he were in a daze. But a second later he regained his sense and exclaimed, “Get behind me, Satan!” and punched himself on the thigh with all his might. “Forgive me, my God!” As a “penance” for him, God allowed him to be so sleepy the following night that he slept right through his vigil until later in the morning. Instead of working that day, he did his prayer rule to make up for neglecting it.
After experiencing how easy it is to accept vainglorious thoughts and seeing how much damage they do, the later wrote to someone: “Be careful… not to compliment one another in each other’s presence, for if compliments harm the perfect, how much more harmful they will be to you who are still weak.”
“Listen, my child: on the one hand you gave your vows to renounce the world, and on the other hand you want honor and compliments? Well, you are wrong! If you want to become a servant of Christ, you ought to accept everything He suffered for our sake: scorn, insults, humiliations, and even being spit upon and beaten! If you endure all these things then you are bearing a small cross and following Christ. With comfort and empty honor and courteous talk, there is no progress of salvation.”
I do my best to not to internalize compliments or use them as a measure of my spiritual progress. They can easily lead me to a prideful and delusional state, of coming to the belief that I am needed and that without me God would not be able to fulfill His plan.
The state of grace
When grace comes to man, it makes him God. But when it departs from him, then he is ready to fall into every heresy, every delusion, every moral deviation, and even damnation. Everything is supported by the grace of God. But grace also has its requirements before it will dwell in man. It seeks his good intentions, his willpower, and his struggle. Together with grace, man becomes an angel. Without grace, he deviates and becomes a demon.
For it is absolutely necessary for the grace of God to leave, once a tried struggler has acquired a good taste of it in the beginning, so that he may be tested and become a practiced soldier of Christ. And without such temptations, no one has ever ascended to perfection. This stage that we mentioned where many fall into delusion is the stage where the grace of God withdraws in order to make us, as we have said, practiced soldier of war, so that we are not infants forever. But the Lord wants us to become worthy men and brave fighters able to guard His riches. That is why He allows us to be tempted.”
I’ve been walking with Christ for over two years and I’ve yet to feel His grace significantly withdrawn. There have been periods of stronger temptations and dryness in prayer, but I have never felt totally alone as I did in my secular days. If that does come, Orthodoxy has given me the tools to deal with it.
Seek not earthly payments
Elder Ephraim [a different Ephraim] was a superb woodcarver. He carved the iconostasis for many churches. When the chapel of the Archangels nearby was renovated, a woodcarver told the elder of that hut that he would charge twenty gold coins to carve a new iconostasis. Since that elder couldn’t afford to pay that much, he asked Elder Ephraim to carve it. Elder Ephraim agreed to do the work without discussing the price. When he finished, the elder of that hut gave him only two gold coins and asked him, “Is this good enough?”
“It’s fine,” replied Elder Ephraim.
As soon as Fr. Arsenios found out, he was furious. He couldn’t bear seeing the extreme injustice and said to Elder Ephraim: “Is that all you got? That’s not fair! The only monk asked for twenty coins and he paid you off with only two?”
The simple but wise Elder Ephraim responded: “If we get paid for everything here, my child, what will be left for heaven?”
A secular person is like an accountant who maintains a ledger of gifts given and gifts received. If the ledger’s balance is out of his favor, he will cry out that people are selfish and don’t appreciate him. If the ledger is tilted to his favor, his pride will believe that he is well-loved and deserving of rewards. The Christian, on the other hand, maintains no ledger, and knows that any good deed he does here will ultimately be rewarded by God, not man. A good test of your faith is if you’re able to offer a sacrifice to someone who you know will not even give thanks. Do the deed for the sake of doing what Christ would have done and then move on.
No exaltation without temptation
“Don’t expect only sweet things. Expect bitter things, too. When you are given a spiritual state full of grace, expect a temptation soon. Likewise, when you have temptations and grief, be aware that consolation from God is near.”
“The amount of grace we are entitled to receive is proportional to the severity of a temptation we can bear with gratitude towards God.”
I have learned that when I experience an especially graceful state, a severe temptation is almost sure to follow. I believe the demons panic when they see your spiritual labor has resulted in a “payday,” and immediately try to bring you back down. This is why it’s important not to think that a graceful state on earth will allow you to forever leave behind the fight.
Having a spiritual elder
“Here on the Holy Mountain, we see that some monks are doing well while other are not. Don’t be surprised by this. Both of them came with the same piety, the same self-denial, and the same zeal that we all had when we first came to monasticism. All of us left behind our father, our mother, our job, etc. That is no great accomplishment. What is a great accomplishment, however, is to find a real elder who will guide us and instruct us and teach us what monasticism really is. The monks who are not doing well are those who did not find a real elder.”
“When we are not obedient to our elder, we will end up being obedient to many ‘elders,’ that is, to many wills, to many passions, to many demons, and in the end we will be enslaved to them in hell. When, however, we are obedient to an elder, we are being obedient to God. For without a sacrificial obedience out of love for Christ, man cannot show his self-denial and love for Him. When we start doing our own will, then every act of obedience to some passion is toward an ‘elder’ or rather a tyrant, who will direct us from then on. This is why today’s disciples who do not revere their elders have no progress.”
Since spiritual elders in the West are few, many of us will have to make do with only a loving parish priest. Without a spiritual elder, however, I believe the amount of grace we can receive will be capped, simply because we wouldn’t be able to handle gifts from God without falling into massive pride or delusion. Perhaps if greater portions of our countrymen repent, God will give us more elders.
Do not judge
“Has a judgmental thought about someone come to you? Don’t just sit there, debating with yourself whether that person is to blame or not. Justify everyone and take all the blame yourself. As soon as you start having negative thoughts about someone else, there is a danger that you will judge him. Just interrupt the thoughts and say to yourself: ‘What he is saying and doing is right. My ego is making me think evil about my brother, and so there’s no point trying to analyze it.’ If you don’t face the assaults of judgmental thoughts in this manner, whether you express them outwardly or cultivate them within you, you will have carnal warfare.
I battle daily with judgment. I dwell on all the wrong things that people are doing and then create elaborate stories of their character flaws and deficiencies. I have used Saint Joseph’s teachings in this area to help in the struggle.
Examine your conscience
“Every evening a monk should examine his conduct to see where he progressed and where he stumbled so that he can make a new beginning of repentance and correction.”
When Elder Joseph did this, he would examine how his day had passed, where he had made mistakes, which passions were acting, which weaknesses were still an issue, and what thoughts had passed through his mind. He would ask himself, “Where am I slipping up? Ah, I am being negligent. In what way? Ah, I am not being careful with my mouth.”
Whenever he found himself to be at fault, he would immediately seek forgiveness from God and be determined to correct himself and to make a new beginning with a strong fight against every passion the following day. His entire life was spent examining his conscience, obtaining its advice, and being obedient to it. In this manner, he was gradually freed from the passions and reached the point of not having his conscience condemn him in anything. This is what gave him boldness in prayer and assurance of going to Paradise.
A good time to do this is during your nightly prayer. Review the day’s deeds, words, and thoughts for future correction. Confess the sins you’re aware of, admonish how you fed your temptations small and large, and recognize any enmity you may have done to your neighbor. (The night prayer section of the Jordanville Prayer Book incorporates this for you.)
Avoid vain and idle talk
Geronda taught us that silence is something ideal and is loftier than all other virtues. He said: “If we take a scale and put all the virtues on one side and silence on the other, the scale will tilt towards silence; for when a monk is silent for the right reason, he will be praying or contemplating divine things. When he is silent and prays, he will have compunction, mourning, tears, peace, and tranquility. When a person is silent, he does not criticize, talk idly, tell lies, slander, or speak about vain matters. Thus, his soul will acquire grace. Silence brings compunction; compunction brings tears; tears bring purification; and purification makes a person worthy to see God. He sees God by mystically perceiving Him in his heart, and he sees things that one could never dream of or describe.”
It has become a challenge for me to converse with secular people. They are enthused and invigorated by sportsball, mainstream news, video games, comic book movies, and the newest technological devices. In order to maintain rapport with them, I have to feign interest in these topics, but that is becoming harder. I remain silent not as a tactic but because I have nothing to add, and so they ask me “What’s wrong?” or explain that “I’m quiet,” no doubt thinking to themselves that I’ve become a boring man compared to my exciting past when I was traveling around the world. I would have no problem admitting that I am boring, but speaking of matters that are not spiritual can only engage me for a short while. I much rather talk about our Creator and the spiritual battle we must engage in during this life.
You may have already been given mercy
At first, we lived in Fr. Theophylactos’s hut of the Holy Unmercenaries in New Skete, but we were not comfortable there. We heard that Father John was about to move away from new Skete, so we went to see if his hut would be suitable for us. When we walked in, we couldn’t believe our eyes! With all the money Father John had earned through iconography, he had purchased the most luxurious amenities: sofas, fancy chandeliers, and even a gas-powdered refrigerator! Such things were unheard-of in those days on the Holy Mountain. When Geronda saw all this, he sadly said: “Can a monk living in a place like this say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’? He has already received mercy! I don’t believe that a person can say the prayer in here.”
The Jesus Prayer is a mainstay of my prayer rule. I regularly ask God to have mercy on me, and I can confidently say to you that He has given me mercy. I am not in any material lack that makes this life unbearable and also have no spiritual lack which blocks my salvation. I experience the little trials, like everyone else, and am sometimes caught off-guard by a new method of demonic attack, but the mercy I ask for is being given to me daily. What can I complain about? What can I use as a pretext to forsake God from accepting the common delusion that He has forsaken me, like with so many lukewarm Christians who experienced a tough trial and then decided to blaspheme the Lord and abandon their faith? I’m sure my mind will soon find something to complain about, but I know that I have truly been given more mercy than I deserve.
Do not talk to the demons
“When I tried to disprove the devil’s claims by citing states of grace I had experienced, he refuted every one of them by attributing them to coincidence, human nature, delusion, circumstance, feelings, or by merely dismissing them as natural, non-existent, or demonic.”
“The primary goal of the devil is to undermine our faith so that he can ridicule us for having betrayed and denied God.”
The demons are smarter and more advanced than you. They are experts at fallacious argumentation. If you get into a debate with them, they will simply widen the door to whatever doubt you’re experiencing. Here’s a relevant example from my book American Pilgrim, which coincidentally happened at the time of my visitation to Elder Ephraim’s monastery in Arizona:
Around the time I visited St. Anthony’s, doubts began randomly popping into my mind. I would contemplate God’s providence and then a thought would enter: “How do you know this is God’s doing? It’s just a coincidence.” I would pray to Jesus Christ and a different thought would enter: “Jesus was just a man. Are you sure He even existed?” Now that I was finally getting a handle on my sexual temptations, I found myself in the midst of a new style of attack. The doubts were not convincing, and almost childish in nature, but they were distracting. Even before my reversion to the faith, I had deconstructed and discarded most atheistic beliefs, so I was surprised that the demons thought that type of attack could shake my faith. I’d just have to barrel through. When the doubts came, I’d recite the Jesus Prayer until they stopped. I wouldn’t get into a debate with the thoughts and open the door for the demons to converse with me. I’d simply pray.
Turn away from the temptation and hold onto the truth of Jesus Christ that He already wrote on your heart. Labor against the temptation and soon God will cause the demons to scatter for a time, but be careful of needing to be re-convinced or re-persuaded of a truth that already came to you so vividly through the Holy Spirit upon repentance. God is not a salesman who must eternally convince you through miracles and signs—it’s your responsibility to remember the truth and hold onto it until the end.
My Elder Joseph The Hesychast taught me that the more we dedicate ourselves to God, not only in spirit but also through daily labors, the closer we will feel his presence and grace. Unfortunately, we fill our days with so many distractions and worldly tasks that we give hardly any space for God to enter, and then when we are exhausted at the end of the day from what the world threw at us, we dedicate a paltry five or ten minutes before bedtime (if that) to give God His rightful thanks and worship through prayer. That is surely not enough time for monks and neither for us lay people as well. With the same zeal we worship God on the Lord’s Day, we must also do the same on other days to reduce the domination that non-spiritual cares have on us. We may not be able to achieve the heights of Saint Joseph, but we can surely climb higher.
Learn More: My Elder Joseph The Hesychast on Amazon