A brother asked an old man a question, saying, “What shall I do?” And the old man said unto him, “Go and learn to love putting restraint upon yourself in everything.”
[On this day, 25th Mesra, the Coptic Church commemorate the great ascetic father St. Bessarion, his blessings be with us.]
Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion said, ‘One day when we were walking beside the sea I was thirsty and I said to Abba Bessarion, “Father, I am very thirsty.” He said a prayer and said to me, “Drink some of the sea water.” The water proved sweet when I drank some. I even poured some into a leather bottle for fear of being thirsty later on. Seeing this, the old man asked me why I was taking some. I said to him, “Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on.” Then the old man said, “God is here, God is everywhere.” ‘
[Abba Bessarion, Apophthegmata Patrum]
Your name is ointment poured forth; Therefore the virgins love you. (Song of Songs 1:3)
Therefore virgins love you. Spiritual life depends solely on love. Many people claim that faith, righteousness or godliness are the basis of a sound spiritual life. That is untrue. A sound spiritual life is based wholly on love. There is no other way, God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him (1 Jn 4:16). Spiritual life resolves around this verse, Therefore the virgins love you. No matter how hard one tries to expound or illustrate the many different aspects of righteousness or sanctity as they occur in the Bible, the few words, the virgins love you, are more powerful and poignant.
They explain these aspects better because the verse here depicts the human soul as a virgin soul, hardly concerned with the material world, neglectful of the love of matter, oblivious of the self and completely unattached to and unmindful of the desires of the flesh. The soul’s main objective and ultimate desire is the love of God. So if you love the Lord, then you are a believer and you are on the right track. If you do not, then you still do not know Him, nor have you started your journey with Him. Love is the key. Even if you try your hardest to keep the commandments, obey the Lord, and give (your) body to be (1 Cor 13:3), without love, it profits you nothing. If you pray day and night without love, it leads you nowhere.
If you fast all the fasts of the year and you do not have love, it avails you nothing. If you read the Holy Gospel and even memorise it without love, it is of no use. If you preach day and night and you do not have love, you have, become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal, (1 Cor 13:1). The pivotal point of a sound spiritual life lies in the love of virgins. Your love for the Lord indicates that you are well on your way to the Lord’s path. If, however, you do not love the Lord, then you are still outside and away, in a far country (Luke 15:13).
God seeks love; He yearns for that love that springs from the hearts of virgins. It is inconceivable to try to win the Lord’s love when you are not completely devoted to His love. It is unthinkable to mix His love with the love of the world. This simply indicates that your soul is not a virgin. You are not consecrated and dedicated to Him. Rather, you are like the Samaritan woman who was married to five husbands: the world, the devil, carnal lusts, the desires of the flesh, the ego… etc. What makes the soul a virgin is the capacity to love the Lord from all the heart.
Two questions come to mind in this respect. The first question is, Do you have that “virgin” soul? And the second is, Do you love the Lord? The two questions are closely related; they are two faces of the same coin: if you love the Lord, you will have a virgin, pure and chaste soul. Conversely, if you have a pure, chaste and virgin soul, you will naturally love the Lord.
[H.H. Pope Shenouda III of thrice-blessed memory, Have You Seen the One I Love?]
Tell me, O you whom I love, Where you feed your flock, Where you make it rest at noon. (Song of Songs 1:7)
Many people who ask the Lord, Tell me, O whom I love, Where you feed your flock, where you make it rest at noon, are unaware that the Lord is with them, amongst them and in their midst. They simply do not experience His presence. This also brings to mind what Jesus said to St. Philip, Have I been with you so long, and yet you have no known Me, Philip, (John 14:9).
The man born blind also provides us with another example. When Jesus found him again, He said to him, Do you believe in the Son of God? The man answered and said, Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him? To which Jesus responded, you have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you, (John 9:35-37). You are with Him, but you do not see Him. Tell me, O whom I love, Where you feed your flock, where you make it rest at noon. This is a call for the Lord, an earnest appeal to see the Lord and a sincere, solemn request to know Him and enjoy His companionship. It is a reflection of an overwhelming desire to join the few followers of the Shepherd in the wilderness. Where you feed your flock, where you make it rest at noon.
At a time in which the heat is most severe and spiritual warfare is most intense, a time in which everyone is seeking shelter from the oppressive heat and trying to find comfort for their hearts and their souls, my sole concern and my one desire is to find shelter underneath Your shade. I am seeking you at noon, a time of labour and hard work, toiling under the scorching sun that has beleaguered and stressed me with its excessive heat. Exhausted and worn out I see You, Tell me, O whom I love, Where you feed your flock, where you make it rest at noon.
What a worthy request! What a beautiful call. A great number of people seek the Lord and reverberate the same request. Saul of Tarsus asked the Lord, Lord, what do You want me to do? (Acts 9:6). He expresses his desire to do whatever the Lord pleases, whatever is requested of him. The rich young man also asks Jesus, Good teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life? (Mark 19:16).
Tell me, O whom I love, Where you feed your flock, where you make it rest at noon. I love you, O Lord, from the depths of my heart and with all my being. I long to do whatever is pleasing for You. Sometimes, however, I do not know what to do. I would like to live with You and enjoy Your fellowship, but I do not know how. There are many different paths that lie ahead of me, so which one shall I choose? I would like to know Your holy blessed will and plan for my life. Tell me, O Lord, about Your Divine plan for my life. Tell me, O whom I love, Where you feed your flock, where you make it rest at noon. Let me know what You want me to do.
People oftentimes ask the Lord to make known His plan for their lives. They ask what kind of life the Lord wants them to lead. Is it a life of service or one of seclusion? Is it in matrimony or in celibacy? Is it a life of meditation or one of work? Where do You want me, Lord? Is it in speech or in silence? In utter devotion and consecration or is it something else? Tell me, O whom I love, Where you feed your flock, where you make it rest at noon.
This is an example of a human soul that is confronted with many paths. It asks the Lord for help in finding His way among the many paths that lie ahead. The Lord assures you that whatever path you choose, He will walk alongside with you. The important thing for God is your adoring, loving heart. The Lord is not concerned with the “path” you choose. Rather, His main concern is the “way” you choose to lead your life. What kind of life you opt to lead is the important thing for the Lord.
[H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Have You Seen the One I Love]
By night on my bed I sought the one I love; I sought him, but I did not find him. (Song of Songs 3:1)
The story recounted in the Song of Songs is the spiritual life story of the human soul that has experienced life with God, one in which it has tasted the sweet and sour and undergone the good and the bad. This human soul has witnessed Gethsemane. Yet, it has also experienced the Mount of Transfiguration. It has tasted the bitterness of being alienated from God, but it has also experienced the sweetness of His companionship and His nearness. It has undergone many different states and feelings.
This human soul has experienced kindness and thoughtfulness. It is the voice of my beloved! He knocks, saying, ‘Open for me, my love, my dove, my perfect one,’ (Song 5:2). It has also encountered rejection and denial, I sought him, but I did not find him, (Song 3:1). It has experienced, I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine, (Song 6:3), and, His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me, (Song 2:6). However, it has also encountered deprivation and abandonment and has been much afflicted by the guards. It has been depicted as black, yet, it has also been portrayed as beautiful, (Song 1:5). It has been subjected to humiliation and disgrace from her mother’s sons who called her keeper of vineyards, (Song 1:6). On the other hand, she has also been exalted and praised by her bridegroom, Behold you are fair, my love! Behold, you are fair! You have dove’s eyes, (Song 4:1).
Such is the condition of the human soul as it experiences living with the Lord, as it savours things that may be sweet or sour, and as it goes through difficulties and happiness. It is a long road in which man marches with the Lord. There are failures, difficulties and hardships along the road, but there are also triumphs and successes.
I have told you many times before and I still maintain that one of the most telling verses that reflects spiritual life is the last verse in chapter right of the book of Genesis. After the Flood, we read, While the earth remains, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease (Gen 8:22). In your lives, my beloved, there is day and night, cold and heat, summer and winter. No man leads an exclusively happy, easy and comfortable life. Every man is bound to encounter periods of darkness and difficulties, if only temporarily. Even the righteous children of light are occasionally subjected to phases of darkness and difficulty.
This virgin reminisces and recounts those phases of abandonment, deprivation, and the many attempts made to seek the Lord. Throughout it all, she has always felt the love that has so tightly united her with the Lord. In the midst of those stages of abandonment when she sought but could not find him, she would be searching and enquiring, Have you seen the one I love? (Song 3:3). She would make an effort to find him, I will rise now…and go about the city; in the streets and in the squares I will seek the one I love, (Song 3:2). Even though the relationship with the Lord has been severed, she has not lost that love.
Love is forever in her heart. Love for the Lord is the foundation of this relationship. It is not founded on formalities, false pretences, mere rituals, commandments or fear. Rather it is based on love; it is based on strong foundations and profound feelings.
[H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Have You Seen the One I Love]
Come back to God once more. Come back to him with prayer. And what is prayer? Pour out your heart before God and say to Him: 2O Lord, I want you. I want to come back to You. Please rescue me from my state and draw me back to You once again.
Without you I am nothing. When I lost you, I lost my life. I lost my happiness and delight. My life became without any meaning or interest.”
Pour yourself out before God and say, “I want to come back to you, O Lord”, but “my enemies are stronger than me ” (Ps. 38:9). “Many are they who say of me, ‘There is no help for him in God.'”. (Ps. 3:2).
Come back to God and say, “Lord, You carry me. And return me to You once more.” Tell him, “I lost my strength when I went far away from You. Give me some of Your strength. Please give me the divine assistance to help me to return to You.”
Many people say, “We want to return to God. How do we return?” Cast yourself before Him.
Cast yourself before the Lord and wrestle with Him and say to Him: ‘I shall not get up from here unless I have received Your special blessing and feel that You have taken me back and counted me among your children.
I do not just want You to forgive my sin, I want You to remove from my heart any love of sin, once and for all.”
Tell him, “Lord I cannot come back to You, if there is any love of sin in my heart. Take the love of sin from my heart. It’s not that I will leave sin and come back to you, its that You will come and remove the love of sin from me. If it were within my power to abandon the love of sin, I would have returned to You long ago.
But I want you to make me leave it. I want You to give me power. I want You to lead me in the procession of your victory.
Take any desire to sin from my heart and remove any domination which sin might have over my will. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” . (Ps. 51:7).
Just as you have given me the instruction to return, O Lord, give me the strength to carry it out.
Believe me my brethren, the person whose is successful at prayer is the person whose repentance succeeds.
Mar Isaac was truly right when he said, “If anyone believes there is a path to repentance except through prayer, he is deceived by demons.” Because through prayer you receive the power to return to God.
Therefore, force yourself in prayer more than in any other work. Because through prayer, you remove the separating wall between you and God, so that you may return to him once more.
It is amazing how many people prefer the service more than prayer. And reading more than prayer. And contemplation more than prayer. And attending religious gatherings more than prayer. That is why they fail in their relationship with God.
They therefore pray, read, have a service and attend their meetings, but are separated from God. There is no relationship.
Instead, come back to God.
Come back to God and take from Him.
Some people think that in prayer, you are the one giving to God. You give him words, you give him time, you give him emotions.
But in reality, prayer in its true depth is a process of taking from God. He is the Giver, not the taker.
The person who prays and feels that he has taken from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.
The person who prays and feels that he has received power from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.
The person who prays and receives blessings from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.
The person who prays and receives repentance from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.
The person who prays and receives holiness in their life from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.
The person who prays and receives a spiritual connection between themselves and God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.
This is prayer.
God is telling you to come, come and pray so that I may give to you. And you stand for two minutes, and get bored, and get frustrated, and leave your prayer without taking anything from Him. And God looks at you and marvels, my son, why did you leave so quickly without taking? I was about to give to you. Why did you leave so quickly? Why did you leave before I could give to you?
You got bored and left. Thats fine, leave. But then you start looking for God, and cannot find Him.
And not only did you leave without receiving anything; you left thinking you had given God a few minutes of your time. You go to your spiritual chart for the day and check off “prayer.” This is not prayer. What did you receive from God?
You need to hold onto God and tell Him, “I am not leaving You.”
This is why prayer needs patience. Without patience, you do not receive anything. You have to be patient in your prayers. Tell him, “Lord I’m standing before You, and I don’t want to leave You until You’ve given me what I want. If I don’t receive, I will keep holding onto You. I will not let You go, unless you bless me. I held Him, and did not let Him go.
This is what struggle is in prayer.
People haven’t learned how to pray. They think prayer is to say a couple of words and then you’re gone. Or to pray as you walk away. No, this won’t work my beloved.
Pray to God and receive from Him. And if you don’t receive? Say to Him, “I’m not leaving You today. No matter what, I’m not leaving You. I won’t leave You. They say you’re the kind and compassionate God, and they say to ask and you shall receive – well, I’ve asked, and I won’t leave until I receive.”
Keep this contest between you and God, and this struggle in your prayers. And so, you will receive comfort from your prayers, and your heart will be filled with love, and you will become fervent in your prayers without “repeating vainly like the Gentiles.” Instead you will pour yourself out as an offering before God.
Just as Hannah the mother of Samuel used to pray. She used to pray a prayer, and weep a weeping, and vow a vow, and she did not leave the temple until she had received a promise that she would have a son.
David the Prophet did not leave God until he had received. He used to pray saying, “Lord, why have they who afflict me multiplied?” (Psalm 3:1) And then he would say, “Turn away from me all you who do iniquity, for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping. The Lord has accepted my prayer.” (Psalm 6:8-9).
But didn’t you said before, “Lord do not rebuke me with your anger and do not chasten me with your wrath” (Psalm 6:1)? Not this, was at the beginning. “Why have they who afflict me multiplied” was before. But now I have received.
He said, “I laid down and slept then I arose because the Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who arise against me.” (Psalm 3:5-6). Why? Because I’ve received power. In the beginning I said they who have afflicted me have multiplied, but now I have received power. I’ve received reassurance. I haven’t left God.
[H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Return to God]
Remember your weakness, so that you are more cautious and will not submit to the thoughts of pride and false glory.
Remember the loving kindness the Lord has bestowed on you, and you will always live the life of thanksgiving. Faith will grow in your heart as well as the trust in God’s love and work.
Remember other people’s love and their good history with you. Should you doubt their sincerity or discover they have wronged you, their old love will intercede for them and your anger will fade away.
Remember death, so that all worldly temptations will disappear and you feel that all is vanity and grasping for the wind (Eccl 1:14).
Remember that God is standing before you, looking at you, and you cannot sin because you see Him.
Remember God’s promises, and you will be comforted in all your troubles. But if you forget them, say with David the Prophet: Remember Your word to Your servant, in which You give me hope. This comforted me in my humiliation, for Your teaching gives me life. (Psalm 118:49-50).
Remember the Blood of Jesus which was shed for your sake and you will certainly appreciate the value of your life; it will become dear in your eyes, so that you will not waste it in prodigal living, for you were bought at a price.” (1 Cor 6:20).
Remember the vows you made to God at the Baptistery, which your parents took on your behalf: to renounce Satan and all his evil works, all his thoughts and traps and all his forces and powers.
Remember always that you are a stranger on the earth and that you will return to your heavenly home, then you will not put all of your hopes in this world.
Remember that the narrow gate leads to the Kingdom of Heaven. If you see the wide gate open before you, escape and keep away from it as all those who have gone in by it have perished.
Remember your eternity and work for it at all times.
Remember that you are a child of God and ought to have His image. Walk as is fitting for the children of God who are seen by others.
Remember that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God within you. Be always a holy temple.
Remember all that you have read on this page, and if you have already forgotten, please read it again.
[H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Words of Spiritual Benefit, 104]
“I sleep, but my heart is awake; it is the voice of my beloved! He
knocks, saying, “Open for me, my sister, my love, My dove,
my perfect one; For my head is covered with dew,
My locks with the drops of the night.”
[Song of Songs 5:2]
The virgin of the Song of Songs sees herself as asleep. She remains without a spiritual outlook. There is no passion. There is no vigilance. There is no vitality. There is no activity. However, she affirms it to be acceptable. I sleep, but my heart is awake (Song 5:2), I have something encouraging since my heart is awake. Although I sleep, I am keenly sensitive to the voice of my Beloved. Indeed, I am asleep, but I still can hear the voice of my Beloved knocking and saying, Open for me, my sister, my love (Song 5:2). These are great words. Although I sleep, I can hear His voice. This is not death, only slumber. The Lord told them, the child is not dead, but sleeping (Mark 5:39). She still has the breath of life in her. It may be that the life in her is concealed and veiled, but there is still life in her. She still has life and that life will definitely bring forth fruit.
The trees do not produce fruits all year long. Yet, we do not cut it down and throw it into the fire. The tree still has life. Ploughing around it and enriching it with fertilizers may help it bring forth fruits later. I sleep, but my heart is awake.
I sleep, but my heart is awake. It is counter productive to focus on the negatives and admonish and reproach sleep. It would be wonderful, however, if the heart that is awake is beaming gleefully and vivaciously with hope. We should not lose sight of the fact that had God relinquished hope in the state of the Church when it is lukewarm, lacking in zeal and ardor, or had He given up hope in ever awakening our hearts, we would have all perished. Rather, time and again, the Lord has consoled, sustained and encouraged us that even though our bodies are asleep and the flesh is weak, our hearts are awake and the spirit is willing. It is these alert hearts that the Lord seeks and desires.
One may be asleep like wasteland: The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. However, there is something positive, nonetheless. The spirit of God (is) hovering over the face of the waters (Gen 1:2). Something beautiful is bound to come out of it.
Micah the prophet seems to reiterate the same theme. Do not rejoice over me, O sin, for even if I fall, I will rise up again (cf. Micah 7:8). This is an affirmation, an assertion, that even though one may commit a sin or make a mistake, one will not wallow in the dirt but will brace oneself and rise up again. We have that same conviction that after every Golgotha, there is a resurrection. Therefore, despite my apparent frailty and weakness while being nailed to the cross, in a short while I will resurrect in great glory.
There are positive aspects in everyone’s life. Some people, however, give up and resign themselves to despondency and despair. Some people can only see futility, uselessness and hopelessness when they confront difficulties and challenges. Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days (John 11:39).
The Lord, on the other hand, ascertains that this is not true. He sees life in Lazarus. If you would believe, you would see the glory of God, (1 John 1:40). God confirms that the person who is thought of as dead, even with a stench, and has been in that condition for a long time will rise up again. He has a heart that is awake, and the minute the Lord utters the words Lazarus, come forth he will rise, come out of the grave and see the Light.
There is hope. There is hope for everyone. No one can shut the door of hope to anyone regardless of their condition. Even if the human spirit is without form, and void; and darkness is on the face of deep, even if it has developed a stench for lying in the grave for four days, and even if she is asleep. The important thing is that the heart is awake.
[H.H. Pope Shenouda III of thrice blessed memory, 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, “Have You Seen The One I Love”]
[Extract from Pimonakhos Vol. 3 Issue 4 produced by St. Shenouda’s the Archimandrite Coptic Orthodox Monastery, Sydney Australia]