Abba John said, “We have put the light burden on one side, that is to say, self-accusation, and we have loaded ourselves with a heavy one that is to say, self-justification.”
The parents of a young girl died, and she was left an orphan; she was called Paesia. She decided to make her house a hospice, for the use of the Fathers of Scetis. So for a long time she gave hospitality and served the Fathers. But in the course of time, her resources were exhausted and she began to be in want. Some wicked men came to see her and turned her aside from her aim. She began to live an evil life, to the point of becoming a prostitute. The Fathers, learning this, were deeply grieved, and calling Abba John the Dwarf said to him, ‘We have learnt that this sister is living an evil life. While she could, she gave us charity, so now it is our turn to offer her charity and to go to her assistance. Go to see her then, and according to the wisdom which God has given you, put things right for her.’
So Abba John went to her, and said to the old door-keeper, ‘Tell your mistress I am here.’ But she sent him away saying, ‘From the beginning you have eaten her goods, and see how poor she is now.’ Abba John said to her, ‘Tell her, I have something which will be very helpful to her.’ The door-keeper’s children, mocking him, said to him, ‘What have you to give her, that makes you want to meet her?’ He replied, ‘How do you know what I am going to give her?’ The old woman went up and spoke to her mistress about him. Paesia said to her, ‘These monks are always going about in the region of the Red Sea and finding pearls.’ Then she got ready and said to the door-keeper, ‘Please bring him to me.’ As he was coming up, she prepared for him and lay down on the bed.
Abba John entered and sat down beside her. Looking into her eyes, he said to her, ‘What have you got against Jesus that you behave like this?’ When she heard this she became completely rigid. Then Abba John bent his head and began to weep copiously. She asked him, Abba, why are you crying?’ He raised his head, then lowered it again, weeping, and said to her, ‘I see Satan playing in your face, how should I not weep?’ Hearing this, she said to him, Abba, is it possible to repent?’ He replied ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘Take me wherever you wish.’ ‘Let us go,’ he said and she got up to go with him. Abba John noticed that she did not make any arrangements with regard to her house; he said nothing, but he was surprised.
When they reached the desert, the evening drew on. He, making a little pillow with the sand, and marking it with the sign of the cross, said to her, ‘Sleep here.’ Then, a little further on, he did the same for himself, said his prayers, and lay down. Waking in the middle of the night, he saw a shining path reaching from heaven to her, and he saw the angels of God bearing away her soul. So he got up and went to touch her feet. When he saw that she was dead he threw himself face downwards on the ground, praying to God. He heard this: ‘One single hour of repentance has brought her more than the penitence of many who persevere without showing such fervour in repentance.’
[Abba John the Dwarf, Apophthegmata Patrum]
For repentance must be taken in hand not only anxiously, but also quickly, lest perchance that father of the house in the Gospel who planted a fig-tree in his vineyard should come and seek fruit on it, and finding none, say to the vine-dresser: “Cut it down, why does it cumber the ground?” (Luke 13:7). And unless the vine-dresser should intercede and say: “Lord, let it alone this year also, until I dig about it and dung it, and if it bear fruit— well; but if not let it be cut down” (Luke 13:8-9 3).
Let us then dung this field which we possess, and imitate those hard-working farmers, who are not ashamed to satiate the land with rich dung and to scatter the grimy ashes over the field, that they may gather more abundant crops.
And the Apostle teaches us how to dung it, saying: “I count all things but dung, that I may gain Christ,” (Philippians 3:8) and he, through evil report and good report, attained to pleasing Christ. For he had read that Abraham, when confessing himself to be but dust and ashes, (Genesis 18:27) in his deep humility found favour with God. He had read how Job, sitting among the ashes, (Job 2:8) regained all that he had lost (Job 42:10). He had heard in the utterance of David, how God “raises the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the dunghill.”
Let us then not be ashamed to confess our sins unto the Lord. Shame indeed there is when each makes known his sins, but that shame, as it were, ploughs his land, removes the ever-recurring brambles, prunes the thorns, and gives life to the fruits which he believed were dead. Follow him who, by diligently ploughing his field, sought for eternal fruit: “Being reviled we bless, being persecuted we endure, being defamed we entreat, we are made as the offscouring of the world” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13).
If you plough after this fashion you will sow spiritual seed. Plough that you may get rid of sin and gain fruit. He ploughed so as to destroy in himself the last tendency to persecution. What more could Christ give to lead us on to the pursuit of perfection, than to convert and then give us for a teacher one who was a persecutor.
[St. Ambrose of Milan, Concerning Repentance, Book II)
Offer to Christ the labours of your youth, and in your old age you will rejoice in the wealth of dispassion. What is gathered in youth nourishes and comforts those who are tired out in old age.
In our youth let us labour ardently and let us run vigilantly, for the hour of death is unknown. We have very evil and dangerous, cunning, unscrupulous foes, who hold fire in their hands and try to burn the temple of God with the flame that is in it. These foes are strong; they never sleep; they are incorporeal and invisible.
Let no one when he is young listen to his enemies, the demons, when they say to him: ‘Do not wear out your flesh lest you make it sick and weak.’ For you will scarcely find anyone, especially in the present generation, who is determined to mortify his flesh, although he might deprive himself of many pleasant dishes. The aim of this demon is to make the very outset of our spiritual life lax and negligent, and then make the end correspond to the beginning.
[John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent]
To lag in the fight at the very outset of the struggle and thereby to furnish proof of our coming defeat is a very hateful and dangerous thing. A firm beginning will certainly be useful for us when we later grow slack. A soul that is strong at first but then relaxes is spurred on by the memory of its former zeal. And in this way new wings are often obtained.
When the soul betrays itself and loses the blessed and longed for fervour, let it carefully investigate the reason for losing this. And let it arm itself with all its longing and zeal against whatever has caused this. For the former fervour can return only through the same door through which it was lost.
[John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent]
Those who aim at ascending with the body to heaven, need violence indeed and constant suffering especially in the early stages of their renunciation, until our pleasure-loving dispositions and unfeeling hearts attain to love of God and chastity by visible sorrow.
A great toil, very great indeed, with much unseen suffering, especially for those who live carelessly, until by simplicity, deep angerlessness and diligence, we make our mind, which is a greedy kitchen dog addicted to barking, a lover of chastity and watchfulness.
But let us who are weak and passionate have the courage to offer our infirmity and natural weakness to Christ with unhesitating faith, and confess it to Him; and we shall be certain to obtain His help, even beyond our merit, if only we unceasingly go right down to the depth of humility.
[John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent]
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
Of what honor, of what blessedness are these words? And He said not, Take, but, Inherit, as one’s own, as your Father’s, as yours, as due to you from the first. For, before you were, says He, these things had been prepared, and made ready for you, forasmuch as I knew you would be such as you are.
And in return for what do they receive such things? For the covering of a roof, for a garment, for bread, for cold water, for visiting, for going into the prison. For indeed in every case it is for what is needed; and sometimes not even for that. For surely, as I have said, the sick and he that is in bonds seeks not for this only, but the one to be loosed, the other to be delivered from his infirmity. But He, being gracious, requires only what is within our power, or rather even less than what is within our power, leaving to us to exert our generosity in doing more.
[St. John Chrysostom, Homily 79 on the Gospel of St. Matthew]
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly [Mat 6:5-6]
These too again He calls hypocrites, and very fitly; for while they are feigning to pray to God, they are looking round after men; wearing the garb not of suppliants, but of ridiculous persons. For he, who is to do a suppliant’s office, letting go all other, looks to him alone, who has power to grant his request. But if you leave this one, and go about wandering and casting around your eyes everywhere, you will depart with empty hands. For this was your own will. Therefore He did not say “such shall not receive a reward”, but, “they have it”: that is, they shall indeed receive one, but from those of whom they themselves desire to have it. For God does not want this: He rather for His part was willing to bestow on men the recompense that comes from Himself; but they seeking that which is from men, can be no longer justly entitled to receive from Him, for whom they have done nothing.
But mark, I pray you, the lovingkindness of God, in that He promises to bestow on us a reward, even for those good things which we ask of Him.
Having then discredited them, who order not this duty as they ought, both from the place and from their disposition of mind, and having shown that they are very ridiculous: He introduces the best manner of prayer, and again gives the reward, saying, go into your room. What then, it may be said, should we not pray in church? Indeed we should by all means, but in such a spirit as this. Because everywhere God seeks the intention of all that is done. Since even if you should go into your room, and having shut the door, should do it for display, the doors will do you no good.
It is worth observing in this case also, how exact the definition, which He made when He said, That they may be seen by men. So that even if you shut the doors, this He desires you duly to perform, rather than the shutting of the doors: to shut the doors of the mind. For as in everything it is good to be freed from vainglory, so most especially in prayer. For if even without this, we wander and are distracted, when shall we pay attention to the things which we are saying, if we have this disease also? And if we who pray and beseech do not pay attention, how do we expect God to pay attention?
[St. John Chrysostom, Homily 19 on the Gospel of St. Matthew]
Abba John used to say, “The whole company of the holy men is like a garden which is full of fruit-bearing trees of various kinds, and wherein the trees are planted in one earth, and all of them drink from one fountain; and thus is it with all the holy men, for they do not have one rule only, but several varieties, and one man labours in one way, and another man in another, but it is one Spirit which operates and works in them.”