Wisdom From Mount Athos is a compilation of sayings from Saint Silouan, a Russian ascetic who lived in Mount Athos around the early 20th century. His disciple, Saint Sophrony of Essex, is responsible for publishing Saint Silouan’s notes and other writings for us to read. (I have also reviewed Saint Sophrony’s book On Prayer.)
The book itself is a slim volume with simply-worded and divinely-inspired thoughts and precepts. The faith that Saint Silouan shares stems from the “basic” teaching of loving God, neighbor, and enemy, but it’s quite difficult to put into practice. He shows that faith does not have to be an arduous intellectual exercise.
3 signs your faith is strong
How may we know whether the Lord loves us or no?
Here are tokens: If you battle firmly against sin the Lord loves you. If you love your enemies you are even more beloved of God. And if you lay down your life for others you are greatly beloved of the Lord, who Himself laid down His life for us.
I battle firmly against some sins but not others. I do not love my enemies; sometimes I do not even love my friends. I may be able to do favors for people, but I doubt I would sacrifice my life for them.
From where do Christians get their strength?
Filled with love the holy Apostles went into all the world, preaching salvation to mankind and fearing nothing, for the Spirit of God was their strength. When St Andrew was threatened with death upon the cross if he did not stay his preaching he answered:
‘If I feared the cross I should not be preaching the Cross.’
In this manner all the other Apostles, and after them the martyrs and holy men who wrestled against evil, went forward with joy to meet pain and suffering. For the Holy Spirit, sweet and gracious, draws the soul to love the Lord, and in the sweetness of the Holy Spirit the soul loses her fear of suffering.
Why doesn’t God answer our prayers for healing and good health?
Thus for many years have I suffered violent headaches, which are hard to bear but salutary because the soul is humbled through sickness. My soul longs to pray and keep vigil, but sickness hinders me because of my body’s demand for rest and quiet; and I besought the Lord to heal me, and the Lord hearkened not unto me. So, therefore, it would not have been salutary for me to have been cured… And I understood that if the Lord does not cure me of my headaches it is because they are good for my soul.
If God does not remove an illness from me even though I pray to him for relief, I must conclude that He chooses not to help because I would go to hell without the illness, through a series of steps that I cannot foresee.
If you do not love your enemies, you do not have God’s love within you
When a man affronts you or brings dishonour on your head, or takes what is yours, or persecutes the Church, pray to the Lord, and say: ‘O Lord, we are all Thy creatures. Have pity on Thy servants, and turn their hearts to repentance,’ and you will be aware of grace in your soul. To begin with, constrain your heart to love her enemies, and the Lord, seeing your good will, will help you in all things, and experience itself will show you the way. But the man who thinks with malice of his enemies has not God’s love within him and does not know God.
If you cannot love, then at least do not revile and curse your enemies…
Peace in our souls is not possible if we do not beg the Lord with all our hearts to give us love for all men. The Lord knew that if we did not love our enemies we should have no peace of soul, and so He gave us His commandment: ‘Love your enemies.’ If we do not love our enemies we shall only now and then be easy, as it were, in our souls; but if we love our enemies peace will dwell in our souls day and night.
Guard the peace of the grace of the Holy Spirit in your soul. Do not lose it over petty trifles. If you give peace to your brother, the Lord will give you incomparably more; but if you injure him, affliction will inevitably fall upon your soul.
I have learned that the first step in loving your enemies is to wish them well.
God’s love for us
The Lord loves all men but His love is greater for the man who seeks Him.
‘I love them that love me,’ said the Lord. ‘And those that seek me shall find grace.’ And with grace life is good, and the soul rejoices and says: ‘My Lord—I am THY servant.’
In these words there is great joy: if the Lord is ours, then all things are ours. That is how rich we are.
Are you being influenced by an evil spirit?
If you think evil of people, it means you have an evil spirit in you whispering evil thoughts about others. And if a man dies without repenting, without having forgiven his brother, his soul will go to the place where lives the evil spirit which possessed his soul.
This is the law we have: if you forgive others, it is a sign that the Lord has forgiven you. But if you refuse to forgive, then your own sin remains with you.
Those who don’t know God love earthly things
We live a long time on this earth and we love the beauty of the earth: the sky and the sun, gardens, sea and river, forest and meadow, music too, and all the beauties of the world. But when the soul comes to know our Lord Jesus Christ she has no further desire for the things of the earth.
The fruitless pursuit of knowledge
If the Lord has left us ignorant of the ordering of many things in this world, then it means it is not necessary for us to know: we cannot compass all creation with our minds.
With our minds we cannot come to know even how the sun was made; and if we beg God to tell us how He made the sun the answer rings clear in our soul: ‘Humble thyself and thou shalt know not only the sun but the Creator of the sun.
But when the soul comes to know the Lord [it] forgets the sun and every created thing, and abandons all anxiety for earthly knowledge.
The Lord gave us the Holy Spirit, and we learnt the song of the Lord, and so we forget the earth for sweetness of the love of God.
The Lord does not reveal Himself to many because of their intellectual pride; yet they think that they have much knowledge. But what is their knowledge worth, if they know not the Lord, know not the grace of the Holy Spirit, know not how this grace comes and wherefore it is lost?
Does the Mother of God find your ways ugly?
Of a truth I say, speaking before God whom my soul knoweth: in the spirit I know the Most Pure Virgin. I never beheld her, but the Holy Spirit allowed me to know her and her love for us. Had it not been for her compassion I should have perished long ago; but she was minded to come to me and show me, that I might not sin. This is what she said: ‘I find your ways ugly to look upon.’ And her words, soft, quiet and gentle, wrought upon my soul. More than forty years have passed since then but my soul can never forget those sweet words, and I know not what return to make for such love towards my sinful self, nor how to give thanks to the good and forbearing Mother of the Lord.
…another time I was listening in church to the reading from the prophet Isaiah, and at the words, ‘Wash you, make you clean’, I thought: ‘Maybe at some time the Mother of God sinned, if only in thought.’ And, marvellous to relate, in unison with my prayer a voice sounded clear in my heart, saying: ‘The Mother of God never sinned, even in thought.’ Thus did the Holy Spirit bear witness in my heart to her purity.
The Saints know everything about you
Call with faith upon the Mother of God and the saints, and pray to them. They hear our prayers and even know our inmost thoughts.
Marvel not at this. Heaven and all the Saints live by the Holy Spirit, and in all the world there is nought hidden from the Holy Spirit. Once upon a time I did not understand how it was the holy inhabitants of heaven could see our lives, but when the Mother of God brought my sins home to me I realized that they see us in the Holy Spirit and know our entire lives.
The Saints hear our prayers and are possessed from God of the strength to help us. The whole Christian race knows this.
The glory which the Lord gives the Saints is so exceeding great that were men to see a Saint as he really is they would fall on their faces in veneration and awe, for man in the flesh is unable to bear the manifestation of heavenly glory.
Sign you are following God’s will
How are you to know if you are living according to the will of God?
Here is a sign: if you are distressed over anything it means that you have not fully surrendered to God’s will, although it may seem to you that you live according to His will.
He who lives according to God’s will has no cares. If he has need of something he offers himself and the thing he wants to God, and if he does not receive it he remains as tranquil as if he had got what he wanted.
The soul that is given over to the will of God fears nothing: neither thunder nor thieves nor any other thing. Whatever may come, “Such is God’s pleasure,’ she says. If she falls sick she thinks, ‘This means that I need sickness, or God would not have sent it.’… If we seem to ourselves to be greatly afflicted it means that we have not surrendered to the will of God.
The Lord gave us the Holy Spirit, and the man in whom the Holy Spirit lives feels that he has paradise within him.
Perhaps you will say, ‘Why is it I have not grace like that?’ It is because you have not surrendered yourself to the will of God, but live in your own way.
The importance of prayer
…the more wood you pike on a fire the more heat you get, and thus it is with God—the more you think on Him the more are you fired with love and fervour towards Him. He who loves the Lord is always mindful of Him and remembrance of God begets prayer. If you are forgetful of the Lord you will not pray and without prayer the soul will not dwell in the love of God, for the grace of the Holy Spirit comes through prayer. Prayer preserves a man from sin, for the prayerful mind is intent on God and in humbleness of spirit stands before the face of the Lord, Who knoweth the soul of him who prays.
News stains the soul
He who would pray freely and untroubled must keep himself in ignorance of the news in newspapers, nor should be read mean books or be curious to know details of other people’s lives. All these things fill the mind with thoughts that stain, and when one would sort them out they further entangle and wear.
During this past Lent, I would go on modest 24-hour news diets, and then when I checked the news, which was usually foul, degenerate, and disturbing, I immediately felt perturbed, tense, annoyed, and even angry. Unless consuming news nourishes your spiritual life, it will disturb the peace in your soul and even put you into despair.
How not to be irritable
All men want peace; but they do not know how to attain it. Paissy the Great, having lost his temper, begged the Lord to deliver him from irritability. The Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Paissy, if thou dost not wish to get angry, desire nothing, neither criticize nor hate any man, and thou wilt have no anger.’
Thus every one who renounces his own will before God and other people will always be at peace in his soul; but the man who likes to have his own way will never know peace.
Don’t give guidance or judgments without praying first
If you are in authority, and have to sit in judgment on someone for doing wrong, pray to the Lord to give you a tender heart which the Lord loves, and your judgment will then be sound; but if you judge purely according to deeds there will be errors in your judgment, and you will not be pleasing to the Lord.
The easiest way to salvation
Here now is the shortest, the easiest way to salvation:
Be obedient and sober, do not find fault, and keep mind and heart from evil thoughts. Remember that all men are good and beloved of the Lord. For such humility the grace of the Holy Spirit will dwell in you, and cause you to exclaim, ‘How merciful is the Lord!’
But if you find fault and are rebellious, if you want your own way, your soul will fail and you will cry: ‘The Lord has forgotten me!’ But it is not the Lord who has forgotten you: it is you who have forgotten that you must humble yourself, and so the grace of God abides not in your soul.
To overcome self-love we need to be for ever humbling ourselves. This is a mighty science not quickly to be mastered. One must reckon oneself the worst of men, and condemn oneself to hell. In this way is the soul humbled, and the tears of repentance are made to flow which give birth to joy. It is well to school the soul to think, ‘I am going to burn in the fires of hell.’ But, alas, few understand this. Many there are who despair and fall by the wayside… [Man] must acquire a lowly and contrite spirit, and then all intrusive thoughts will depart, and his mind will be purified. But at the same time he must know his own capacity, so as not to overburden his soul. Learn to know yourself, and see to it that your soul’s endeavour is within her strength.
Train yourself to cut off an intrusive thought immediately. And if you are forgetful and fail to chase them away at once bring God your repentance. Be at pains over this, so that you acquire the habit. The soul is a creature of habit: according to the habit you have acquired, so will you act all the rest of your life.
…the soul spends her whole life waging war. But do you not lose heart over the struggle, for the Lord loves a brave fighter.
‘Lord, Thou seest that I desire to pray to Thee with a pure mind but the devils will not let me. Tell me what I must do that they may leave me.’
And the Lord’s reply came in my soul:
‘The proud always suffer from devils.’
“Lord,’ I say, ‘Thou art merciful. My soul knoweth Thee. Tell me what I must do that my soul may grow humble?’
And the Lord answered me in my soul:
‘Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.’
One thing I learned from this book is that God will remove his help from you if you insist on guiding yourself, because such an action presupposes that you are proud and believe you don’t need guidance in the first place. I regularly cry out to God for needing guidance, yet I devise plans and goals on my own timetable. I’m learning that patience is an important virtue in spiritual life, that God’s timeline is different from my own.
I received tremendous value from Wisdom From Mount Athos. Its simplicity of language makes it suitable for both existing Orthodox Christians and also those who are inquiring into the faith.
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