Guarding the Sense of Touch (St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, 1801)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Peter A. Chamberas (trans.), Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 120 – 131.

Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain - A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel sm

CONTENTS:

  • The Sense of Touch and Its Activities
  • One Should Not Even Touch His Own Body if It Is Not Necessary
  • A Hierarch Ought Not to Stretch Out His Hand to Receive Gifts out of Greediness, Nor to Strike Anyone or to Ordain Those Who Are Unworthy
  • The Use of Luxurious Clothing and What Its Use Implies
  • The Usefulness of Clothing. The Early Bishops Did Not Wear Expensive Clothing
  • The Present Things Are Vain and Temporal
  • Luxurious Clothing Is the Cause of Many Evils and All Clergy Must Avoid It
  • Luxurious Garments Are Scandalous to Both Men and Women
  • Soft Beds Should Be Avoided for They Are the Cause of Many Evils
  • The Clergy Must Not Play Games of Chance Nor Take Baths
  • Notes

 

5-senses-how-our-senses-work-15-638

The Sense of Touch and Its Activities

We have reached in our discussion the fifth sense, which is the sense of touch. Even though the activity of this sense is generally considered to be concentrated in the hands, it actually encompasses the entire surface of the body so that every feeling and every part and every organ of the body both external and internal becomes an instrument of this sense of touch. Guard yourself then with great attention from such tender touches that arouse strong feelings, feelings that are mostly in the body and most vulnerable to sin. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in interpreting a passage in the Song of Songs, commented that the sense of touch is the subservient sense, the one most likely created by nature for the blind. It is most difficult for one to be free from the power of this sense, once it has been activated. This is why one must be careful to guard it with all his power.

Even though the power of the other senses seems to be active, it nevertheless seems to be far from the enactment of sin. But the sense of touch is the closest to this enactment and certainly the very beginning and the initial action of the deed.

One Should Not Even Touch His Own Body if It Is Not Necessary

Be careful not to bring your hands and your feet close to other bodies, especially of the young. Be especially careful not to stretch your hands to touch anything, unless it is necessary, nor upon members of your body, or even to scratch yourself, as St. Isaac the Syrian and other holy Fathers have taught. Even from such minor activities, the sense of touch becomes accustomed, or to put it more correctly, the devil seeks to arouse us toward sin and at the same time to raise up into our mind improper images of desire that pollute the beauty of prudent thoughts. This is why St. John Climacus wrote: “It so happens that we are polluted bodily through the sense of touch.”1 Even when you go out for the natural needs of your body respect your guardian angel, as St. Isaac has reminded us.2 Elsewhere this same father has written: “Virgin is not one who has merely preserved one’s body from sexual intercourse, but one who is modest unto oneself even when alone.”3

The pagan Pythagoras taught that even if there were no other spectator of human evils in heaven or earth, man should have a sense of modesty and shame for himself. When someone does evil, he dishonors and degrades himself. The ancient Athenians had a temple dedicated to the goddess of modesty that would act in the place of God upon the true conscience. Now, if these pagans taught this and had such shame for themselves, when alone, how much more should we Christians be ashamed of ourselves when we are alone in a closed room, or in an isolated lonely place or even in the darkness of night? For it is only right that the modesty and reverence we feel when in a holy temple be also felt for ourselves, since we are a temple of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit. “For we are the temple of the living God” (II Corinthians 6:16). Again St. Paul wrote: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (I Corinthians 6:19). St. John Chrysostom has taught us also that our bodies are even more honorable and more revered than a temple. We are a living and rational temple, while a building- temple is lifeless and irrational. Moreover, Christ died for us and not for temples.4 Therefore it follows that more shame and modesty should be kept for ourselves and for our bodies than for the temple. For this reason, then, anyone who would dare to degrade the holy temple of his body by committing some sinful deed will in truth be more sinful than those who would desecrate the most famous temple.

Again, our pagan forefathers sought to teach men to avoid shameful deeds by asking them to imagine the presence of some important and revered person. If the imaginary presence of mortal men can avert one from doing evil when found alone, how much more can the true and abiding presence of the true and omnipresent and immortal God, who not only sees the external deeds of men but also knows the inner thoughts and feelings of the heart?

Most foolish then are those who are by themselves alone in an isolated or dark place and who have no self-respect and shame, nor remember the presence of God. They may say: “I am now in this darkness, who can see me?” God condemns such persons as being foolish. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? . . . Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:24). “A man who breaks his marriage vows says to himself, ‘Who sees me? Darkness surrounds me, and the walls hide me, and no one sees me. Why should I fear? The most High will not take notice of my sins.’ His fear is confined to the eyes of men, and he does not realize that the eyes of the Lord and ten thousand times brighter than the sun” (Sirach 23:18 – 19).

receptors

A Hierarch Ought Not to Stretch Out His Hand to Receive Gifts out of Greediness, Nor to Strike Anyone or to Ordain Those Who Are Unworthy

Be careful not to stretch out your hands to do evil. For as David said, “The righteous ought not to put forth their hands to do wrong” (Ps. 125:3), that is, to receive bribes, to be greedy, to be unrighteous, to be graspy. Moreover, it also means not to seek shameful profits, not to carry out shameful beatings, and not to ordain unworthy candidates to the priesthood. God himself forbids the taking of bribes. It is written in Holy Scripture: “And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Ex. 23:8). St. Basil too has written: “He who has not first placed true righteousness in his soul, but is corrupted by money or by considerations of friendship,5 he who defends enmity or besseches power cannot direct and obtain justice.”6

Do not stretch out your hands in greediness, in wrongdoing, in stealing, for the Apostle has written: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). Do not therefore stretch out your hands to acquire unlawful gain or to strike anyone. For according to the Apostle, “a bishop must be above reproach…temperate, sensible, dignified, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, nor quarrelsome, and no lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:2). Any hierarch or priest who strikes with his hand or with a rod anyone is deposed, according to the Twenty-seventh Apostolic Canon. “A bishop, priest or deacon who strikes the faithful who may have sinned or the unbelievers who may have done wrong, and who does this for the purpose of disciplining them through fear, must be deposed. The Lord has never taught us to do this. On the contrary, he was struck but did not strike back. He was abused but did not abuse others. He was beaten but did not threaten others.” The same discipline of deposition is required by the Ninth Canon of the Protodeutera Synod.

Do not be hasty to place your hands for ordination upon unworthy candidates. The Apostle again has instructed Timothy about this matter: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins” (1 Tim. 5:22). The bishops who have ordained unworthy candidates must render an account to God for all the sins that have been committed and may be committed by those whom they have so ordained. St. Chrysostom has also emphasized this point. “Do not tell me that the presbyter has sinned, or that the deacon has sinned. The responsibility of all these is placed upon the heads of those who have ordained such unworthy candidates.”7 Who then, as the Prophet David has asked, can inherit the mountain and the kingdom of God? He who keeps his hands pure from all these. “Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:3-4).

The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America
The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America

The Use of Luxurious Clothing and What Its Use Implies

The use of soft and fine clothing is another matter that we can relate to the sense of touch. Now, if I may be permitted to be more blunt, I want to emphasize especially to hierarchs and priests that they not fall into the error of fantastic apparel which unfortunately many experience because of their bad habits from childhood and the bad examples of others. St. John Chrysostom, first of all, reminded us that the very custom of covering the body with clothing is a perpetual reminder of our exile from Paradise and our punishment, which we received after our disobedience. We who were previously in Paradise, covered by the divine grace and having no need of clothing, find ourselves now in need of covering and clothing for our bodies. The forefathers were naked before the disobedience but not ashamed; after the disobedience they sewed fig leaves together and coverings for their bodies (Genesis 3:7).

Therefore, what is the reason for this reminder of our sin and punishment to be done with bright and expensive clothing? “The use of clothing has become a perpetual reminder for us of our exile from the good things of Paradise and a lesson of our punishment which the human race received as a consequence of the original sin of disobedience. There are those who are so affected in their vain imaginations that they say to us that they no longer know the clothing that is made by the wool of the sheep and that they now wear only clothes made of silk . . . . Tell me now, for whom do you so clothe your body? Why are you glad over your particular set of clothing? Why don’t you heed St. Paul who wrote: “If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (I Timothy 6:8).

Creation-Mosaic-Adam-and-Eve-600x600

The Usefulness of Clothing. The Early Bishops Did Not Wear Expensive Clothing

According to St. Basil the usefulness of clothing is to protect our bodies from the cold in the winter and from the heat in the summer. “What is the difference for one who is sensible to have long robes with a flowing train or to wear foolish and unnecessary clothing that do nothing to keep you warm in winter and to protect you from the heat in the summer?”9 For the clothes to be made of silk and other expensive materials is a vanity that derives from unreal fantasies and misleading desires of the heart. In other words, such vanity is a shadow, smoke, dust thrown into the air, and bubbles that are blown around and broken. Solomon at first experienced the use of expensive clothing but later condemned them. I agree with him when he wrote that they are a vanity of vanities and a deliberate choice of one’s spirit. But what is this choice of one’s spirit? St. Gregory the Theologian considered it to be “a desire of the soul that is irrational and a temptation of man deriving perhaps from the ancient fall.”10 Is it characteristic of a prudent person to follow such vanity? Should he ever allow himself to seek the shadow of dreams? No, please do not accept to do this. Perhaps you will argue the pressures of your youth is forcing you to do this. But what is youth? Solomon again has told us that “youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Eccl. 11:10). Therefore one vanity loves another vanity, but never prudence and right reason. Perhaps you will say that it is the office of being a bishop that prompts you to wear expensive clothes. Well! Take a look at those ancient bishops. See the poor garments of St. Basil and St. Gregory, the cape of St. Athansios and the cape of Bishop Serapion. Moreover, those blessed men traveled great distances on foot and alone. They did not use animals and horses of great value11 that were richly saddled, and without the accompaniment of many persons leading and following the procession. One can see from this vain fantasy that having expensive clothes is not a substantive element but rather a destructive one for the office of a bishop.

The Dormition of St. Anthony the Great
The Dormition of St. Anthony the Great

 

The Present Things Are Vain and Temporal

Leave such vanity, brother. Remember that according to the Apostle: “The form of this world is passing away, and those who deal with the world [live] as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Cor. 7:31). Remember also, “We look to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). For death comes and death is unknown. Judgment follows death and this judgment is quick. After judgment comes hell, an endless hell. When death comes, youth passes away, so does vanity. Every luxury of clothing and all the pleasant things of this life come to an end with the end of the life of each person. Where are your predecessors and those before them? Having the same vain imaginations, have they not played out the short scene of life and the empty sentiments? Are they not now also deceived by the shortness of life and are already earth and dust in a forgotten place, according to David? What do you think? Will you not in a short while follow them? Will you not follow the same way of life and will you not reach the same goal of the grave?

According to the psalmist David and St. Basil who interpreted him, this life is likened to a journey on account of the tendency to reach the goal of each created being. Listen to what he said: “Those who on board a ship are sleeping are nevertheless led to the harbor automatically by the power of the prevailing wind. Even though they may not be aware of it, their journey is continued toward its goal. So is it with us in passing the time of our life. In a certain unique movement that is continuous and ceaseless we are pressed on the unknown course of our life that is appropriate to each of us. You may be sleeping and yet time passes on. You may be awake intellectually active and yet your life is spent, even if it escapes our perception. We are all indeed on a journey, each of us running toward our appropriate goal. This is why we are all on the way. In the case of those who travel, once the first step is taken the next one will follow and the one after that in succession. Consider the affairs of life if they are not similar. Today you have cultivated the earth, tomorrow another person will do it.  And after him still another will continue. Therefore isn’t our life a journey on which we partake differently from time to time and on which we all succeed each other?”12

In the book of Job, Zapar the Naamathite, wanting to indicate the shortness of human life, said: “Though his height mount up to the heavens, and his head reach to the clouds, he will perish for ever…Those who have seen him will say, ‘Where is he?’ He will fly away like a dream, and not be found; he will be chased away like a vision of the night” (Jb. 20:7f.). These examples and even the mere meanness, the vicissitudes and the disorder in human affairs and good things, all of these I hope will convince you to turn down such a vain quest and irrational desire.

job20-zophar-talking
Zophar suggests that Job’s suffering could be divine punishment, and goes into great detail about the consequences of living a life of sin.

What are gold and silver and all those precious stones (as one moralist noted) but bright products of the earth? When these are kept locked up in treasuries they also hold therein the heart of him who has so locked them up and they thus prevail over their owner. What are those famous compliments and honors but smoky emissions which come out of the mouths of the public and are diffused in the air and which are often mixed with the criticisms of envy? What are those supreme, those hierarchal, those patriarchal offices and those great kingdoms, but great servitudes in which those who rise to them find also at the same time their fall? And those who seek after extreme honors find extreme catastrophes. What sort of thing is pleasure but a change that is irreconcilable with self-control? What is good health that we so desire, but a mild and well-tempered condition of the four liquids in our bodies that are always combated by the other four opposing qualities of the elements? What is life but a flow of successive moments in which one is born when the other dies, so that man begins to die just as soon as he begins to live? Finally, what is this body of ours that we so care for but transformed clay and an extolled hospital that contains more diseases than members and nerves? And, speaking in general, what are all the external and useful and so-called good things, but the common properties of the plants and the irrational animals? By the way, these irrational animals are in a sense more well off than we, by realizing less than we do that they can be deprived of these good things, which are after all always united with opposing suffering.

With all this in mind, St. Gregory spoke well when he said: “Do not marvel at anything that does not remain, and do not overlook anything that does. Do not moreover try to grasp at something that simply escapes us when held.”13 A certain wise man also said: “If you are a mortal, O great man, you will concern yourself with mortal things.” Another one said: “The shadow of glory is glory itself. No one who sees a loaf of bread in a painting will ever reach to take the drawing, even if he is a thousand times overcome by hunger. Now, if you want to receive glory, evade glory, for if you seek after glory you will fall away from it.”14 St. Isaac said: “He who runs after honor causes it to flee from before him. But he who avoids it, will be sought out by honor that becomes a herald to all of his humility.”15 Now, meditating on these things prudently, dear brother, say to yourself the words of the wise Joseph Vryennios:

“Soul, be a stranger to all these things; soul, you have been redeemed by the precious blood of the immaculate and spotless Lamb—Christ; soul, for you the good shepherd has offered his own soul; soul, raise up your eye to your Creator, be sober, see your redeemer, know and love the Savior; acquire a blameless conscience…Why do you stand before those things that do not exist? Why do you fret over the things that are corruptible? Why do you find joy with vain things? Why do you trouble yourself with what passes away? Why are you attracted by imaginations? Why do you delight in things that you will abandon as if you will not? And of whose vision will you be deprived in eternity? How long will you be deceived by the eyes, by the attraction of pleasures, by random preoccupations, by evil thoughts, by thoroughly vain glories—all of which cause you to be separated from the vision of the most sublime and desired spiritual reality?”

I find myself out of breath in struggling in every way, dear brother, to find supportive arguments and proofs to show you how empty and vain a thing it is to preoccupy yourself with fine clothing. For I love your salvation as I love my own. And in order to make my words more understandable, I bring the example of the reflux of water of Euripus where the tide changes so often that the ancients chose to refer metaphorically to the frequent changes in human affairs with the term euripus. What else is this troubled life but a strait of troubled waters that flow to and fro? A place where good and bad, happiness and misery, are always flowing and mutually replacing each other; sometimes sending man to the depths of goodness and happiness and sometimes leaving him on the dry shore and in misfortune. Therefore learn even from this name of Euripus and put an end from here on to the desire and the fantasy of these fleeting vanities.

monk-crucified010
`The Crucified Monk` Icon

Luxurious Clothing Is the Cause of Many Evils and All Clergy Must Avoid It

Up to now I have assumed that luxurious clothing is a simple vanity. I am afraid however that it is more than that. It also nourishes vainglory; it is the mother of pride; it is the way to prostitution and it is the panderer of virtually all the passions. I said that it is the nourishment and the mother of vainglory and pride because the soul naturally has the tendency to be fashioned internally according to the body. Now, if the body, as it should, wears humble clothes the soul will also be humbled. If the body wears vainglorious and prideful clothes, the soul too will be vainglorious and prideful, as St. John Climacus has written: “The soul becomes similar to its external appearance and pursuits; it is impressed by what it does and fashioned according to such deeds.”16 I also noted that luxurious clothes lead to prostitution. St. Basil has said: “A person who beautifies himself and is so called is like being promiscuous and a schemer against other marriages.”17 St. Paul disallowed luxurious clothing in women, who are by nature beings who love beauty and who love to dress themselves up: “Women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire” (1 Tim. 2:9). St. Peter too did not permit women “the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing” (1 Pt. 3:3).

If women are not permitted such luxurious apparel, how much more then are we to assume that this is not permitted either among men and especially among hierarchs, who are to keep modesty and propriety in all things. This is why the Sixth Ecumenical Council decreed, through its Twenty-seventh Canon, that the hierarchs and all the clergy be dressed modestly and not use secular and luxurious clothing. The canon says in part that “no one among the clergy should dress with inappropriate clothes while in the city or while traveling on the road. They should wear the apparel that has already been determined for the clergy, that is, modest and simple. Anyone who disregards this rule will be deposed for one week.” Similarly, the Seventh Ecumenical Council with its Sixteenth Canon decreed the following: “Every foolish beautification of the body is foreign to the priestly order. Those bishops and priests who dress themselves with luxurious apparel must be reprimanded and corrected. If they persist in their wrongdoing, they must be given a penance.”

From early times every priestly man was dressed with modest and moderate apparel. Everything that has no practical use but is merely cosmetic only adds to our condemnation, as St. Basil noted.18 They did not wear clothing made out of silk, nor did they add colorful decorations on the edge of their clothing. They heeded the sacred word saying, those who wear the soft and fine apparel are in the palaces of kings (cf. Mt. 11:8; Lk. 7:25). St. Basil once asked, “Have you ever seen a man of high principles wearing a flowery garment made of silk? Despise such things?”19 St. John Chrysostom also noted, “When you see a man wearing silken apparel, laugh him to scorn!”20 St. Isidore Pelousiotes also, explaining the seamless garment of the Lord, noted: “Who can overlook the simplicity of that garment which the poor Galeleans used to wear? In fact they had a special skill in weaving such garments. Imitate the simple garments of Christ. For if the roughness in apparel here on earth is foolishness, wearing the garment of light in heaven is certainly not.”21 The prophets of God too used modest humble and poor garments. Listen to what Clement of Alexandria said of them: “Prophet Elijah wore a garment made of sheepskins which he tied around his waist with a belt of animal hairs. The Prophet Isaiah went about virtually naked and with bare feet. Oftentimes he would wear sack cloth as a symbol of humility and mourning. Jeremiah too only wore a simple linen garment. As the strong members of the body are seen clearly when uncovered, so also is the beauty of virtue demonstrated magnificently when it is not entangled with a great deal of idle talk.” The Synod at Gangra in its Twelfth Canon pronounced anathema upon those criticized for wearing velvet and silk garments. Finally, the same Synod in its Twenty-first Canon decreed: “We accept and praise the simple and modest garments, but we avoid those which are soft and luxuriously ornamental.”

Geronda Epraim Great Entrance

Luxurious Garments Are Scandalous to Both Men and Women

Let me leave aside the sense of folly and looseness that is created on the body, especially on a body of a young person, by the luxury of clothing. I leave aside also the uselessness of such clothing, as St. Gregory the Theologian noted.22 I keep silent about the greed for money that is incited in those who desire to acquire such clothing. I also sidestep the vanity and pride and all the other passions that act as so many poisonous fruit of this death-bearing tree. And I consider only the common scandal that it is for both men and women. It is indeed a great scandal for men to see their bishop dressed in such luxury, and wherever they are they comment that the bishop is altogether given over to a desire for fine garments and an air of haughty pride. It is even a greater scandal for the women. For as they themselves often scandalize the men who look upon them and excite in them certain passions, in the very same way the men who are decorated in fine clothing, especially bishops and priests, scandalize the women and kindle the coals of passion in their souls.

Even if we assume that it is permitted for you to be so dressed, even if you guard yourself and are a prudent person in dressing yourself well, should you not take into account the scandal of those misfortunate souls? Should you not consider the evil desires and the spiritual harm that may be caused in their souls? Who will give an account for this? Certainly no one else except you, for in seeking to serve your foolish desires, it is you who have allowed all these evils to come into being. And this because you have not chosen to imitate the holy hierarchs of old, who dressed humbly and spent their days in great humility. I had the opportunity to know St. Macarius of Corinth, who in his diocese and in his later life always wore humble black clothing. How serious is the punishment for creating a scandal is noted by the Lord himself: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt. 18:6). Listen to this story and be informed: When St. Anthony was about to die, he ordered his disciples to give one of his garments to St. Athansios and the other to Bishop Serapion. These two churchmen received the garments with all of their heart and used to wear them on the dominical feasts. These simple and coarse monastic garments did more to dignify them in a most reverent way than any royal garments ever could in all their luxurious splendor!

Having learned about the luxury of garments and the many evils which come from them, strive to avoid such luxury as harmful to the soul.

nun-procession-st-kosmas-monastery-2
Procession at St. Kosmas GO Monastery, Canada (Proper monastery dress codes not enforced)

Soft Beds Should Be Avoided for They Are the Cause of Many Evils

In this sense of touch we must also include the soft and comfortable beds and everything that has to do with our comfort. Inasmuch as these may contribute to our spiritual harm, they must be avoided by all, but especially the young. Such comforts weaken the body; they submerge it into constant sleep; they warm it beyond measure, and therefore kindle the heat of passion. This is why the prophet Amos wrote: “Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches” (Amos 6:4). Once a young monk asked an elder (monk) how to guard himself against the carnal passions. The elder replied that he should avoid overeating, avoid slander and all those activities which excite carnal passions. The monk however was unable to find the cure for his passion even after observing carefully all the admonitions of the elder. He would return to the elder again and again for advice until he became a burden for the elder. Finally, the patient elder got up and followed the brother to his cell. Upon seeing the soft bed where he slept, the elder exclaimed: “Here, here, is the cause of your struggle with carnal desire, dear brother!”23

Heracleides has also noted in the Lausaikon about Iouvinos, the famous bishop of Askalon, that on a very hot day near the Pelousion mountain he washed with a little water his hands and feet and laid out a camel skin to rest a little in the shade. This was done in the presence of his most holy mother, who directly began to reproach him. “Oh son,” he said, “you are most daring to flatter your body with such care and at such a young age. The more you fuss over it the more it becomes agitated like a serpent against you, seeking to harm you. I am already sixty years old, and I have not yet washed my face and feet in such a way, except for my hands. Even though I suffered certain illnesses and the doctors advised me to take advantage of therapeutic baths and other cures for the body, I have never entrusted in my body nor have I allowed myself to flatter it in any way, knowing full well the enmity that exists between it and the soul. For this reason, my son, I have even refused to recline in a soft bed to sleep.”

Behold what an ascetic reaction is prompted by the simple laying out of a camel skin to rest upon it. Behold how a little washing prompted such austere criticism by a mother to her son. Do you see, dear brother, what great exactness and care is needed and especially by the young? Once the Patriarch of Alexandria, St. John the Merciful, seeing that he had need of it, accepted a precious bed covering offered to him by a certain ruler. Throughout that night the blessed hierarch struggled with his thoughts and was most critical of himself for having accepted such a precious covering when so many poor brothers did not even possess a straw mat to lie on. He finally threw it away from his bed and in the morning had it sold in the marketplace, distributing the money to the poor. Notice well how what is for the comfort of the body, or (what amounts to the same thing) what is unnecessary and more than what we need, was used then by the hierarchs of that time.

In the Psalms the Prophet David has made a distinction between “bed” and “couch.” The bed is commonly used for sleeping, while the couch is in the area prepared for sitting. Now, if your sitting room is furnished with soft chairs and couches, this, I believe, is not harmful since it is also thus prepared for the comfort of guests.

blessed-repose

The Clergy Must Not Play Games of Chance Nor Take Baths

In this general sense of touch must be included the playing of cards and dice and all other such games that one plays with his hands. I beseech you as strongly as I possibly can to avoid these completely. Such games are improper and altogether alien to your high character and profession and they are the cause of much scandal among Christians. They may even become the cause for deposing someone from the hierarchy. The Forty-second Apostolic Canon decreed the following: “Any bishop or priest or deacon who spends his time playing the dice and drinking must either be defrocked or deposed.” Going even further, the Forty-third Apostolic Canon provided that a lay person who is involved in such games of chance is excommunicated. Why do I simply say that you must not play such games? You must not even look upon those who do. The law of Photios decreed the following:

“Any bishop or clergyman who plays the dice or other such games of chance, or who simply keeps company with those who do and sits beside them when they play, must be deposed from doing any of his sacred duties and must not receive any of the provisions given by his diocese for a certain period of time until he repents. If he should persist in his evil even beyond the given time for repentance, he must be entirely banished from the ranks of the clergy and may become a secular officer of some kind for the province where he had been a clergyman.”24

According to Aremnopoulos, the One hundred and twenty-third Law of Justinian requires that they clergy who become drunkards and those who play the dice must be confined to a monastery. I say nothing of all the harm that comes to those who play cards and other such games, about which St. John Chrysostom wrote the following: “The vice of dice brings blasphemy, anger, harm, abuse, and a myriad more evils greater than these.”25 Aristotle himself, even though a pagan, numbered the gamblers among the thieves and robbers: “A dice player, a thief and a robber are among those who are not free, for they acquire their gain shamefully and illegally.”26

You have already heard above from the holy nun and mother of Iouvinos how harmful even simple bathing can be, especially to the young. In the act of bathing the sense of touch is certainly sorely tested and tempted. As we read in the sayings of the Fathers there were many ascetic fathers who hesitated even at the crossing of rivers, not only because they were ashamed to bathe their bodies but also because they did not even want to uncover their legs. These holy men were often in a flash transported across the river by an angel of God. St. Diadochos, bishop of Photiki, has written that the avoidance of baths is a manly achievement. “It is a manly and prudent thing to avoid baths. This way our bodies are not effeminate by that pleasurable flow of water over them, nor do we come to a remembrance of that shameful nakedness of Adam, so that we too seek to cover the shame with the [fig] leaves of a second excuse. Those who desire to keep their bodies spiritually pure are especially required to be united with the beauty of prudence and chastity.”27 Of course, it is understood and acceptable that occasionally one must bathe out of necessity for the sake of health and the requirement of an illness.

Achilles and Ajax playing dice
Achilles and Ajax playing dices

Notes

  1. The Ladder, Step 15.
  2. Homily 26.
  3. Homily 56.
  4. Homily 14, On Ephesians; Homily 20, On 2 Corinthians.
  5. Cleon the king of Athens was highly praised when he was made king against his will and then proceeded to call all his most dear friends and with sighing and sorrow took his leave from them, fearing that he might be forced to transgress the law because of their friendship. As a prudent man he had realized that friendship and authority cannot sit together at the same time upon the same cathedra. He who would exercise justice must put friendship aside. The story is also told of Routelios, the dear friend of Skouros. When Skouros requested an unjust favor from his friend Routelios and did not receive it, he was disturbed and retorted: “And what need have I of your friendship if I cannot get one small favor from you?” To this reproach Routelios replied: “And what need have I of your friendship if I am to do for you unjust deeds?” And their friendship came to an end. Above all the praise goes to Pericles the Athenian, who was being beseeched by a friend to take a false oath in order to support him. Pericles responded with the famous saying: “Friend up to the sanctuary,” that is to say, “I want to be your friend but only until we come up to the holy sanctuary” (where it was customary to place the hand when taking a public oath). It is necessary here to grieve bitterly! For if these persons who were far from the grace of the Gospel were able to rise to such heights of virtue with only the natural law, you who are an Orthodox Christian, a leader, a bishop, a ruler, what do you think? Can you disobey the law of God? Do you think that you will be saved? You are deluding yourself!
  6. Homily on Proverbs.
  7. Homily 3, On Acts.
  8. Homily 18, On Genesis.
  9. Address to the Young Men.
  10. Funeral Oration to Caesarios.
  11. The Lord himself through his own example taught us to travel in a humble manner. He himself used the humble donkey to enter Jerusalem and not a stallion. However, when the road is difficult or long it is permissible for bishops and Christians in general to travel with horses and mules, but these should not be animals of great value nor richly saddled and adorned.
  12. Commentary on Psalm 1.
  13. Homily on the Lord’s Day.
  14. Quoted in the Life of Cyril Phileotos.
  15. Homily 5.
  16. Homily 25, On Humility.
  17. Address to the Young Men.
  18. The Short Monastic Rule, 49.
  19. Homily on the Hexaemeron.
  20. Homily 11, On 1 Timothy.
  21. Epistle 74 to Caton the Monk.
  22. Homily on the Birth of Christ.
  23. From the
  24. The first Book of the Codex, Statute 34, Title 9, ch. 27.
  25. Homily in the Statutes.
  26. Nichomachean Ethics, Book 4.
  27. Diadochos of Photike, ch. 52.

 

Some Thoughts on Laughter (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: The following article is from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 114-116, 119:

download (3)

Laughter, too, falls into this sense of taste and not to another, and must be avoided, especially violent laughter that is so uncontrolled and loud that it often produces tears. Such excited laughter causes the gums and the teeth to show in those who laugh loudly just as they do with horses when they neigh. St. Basil has strict rules against loud laughter. “To be overcome by uncontrolled and meaningless laughter is a sign on intemperance and the lack of modesty in our behavior; it is also a sign that the foolishness of the soul is not controlled by precise reason.”1 St. Basil also said: “Loud laughter and violent reactions of the body are not proper to one who is contrite of heart, mature, and self-controlled.” This is why this form of laughter is discouraged in the Bible as something especially harmful to the stability of the soul: “I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’” (Eccl. 2:2).

Prophet Solomon

Solomon was right in pointing out that the laughter of the foolish is similar to the sound of thorn bushes being burned. “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools” (Eccl. 7:6). St. Gregory the Theologian in his limbic Poetry wrote: “All laughter deserves the laughter (contempt) of wise people, especially the sinful laughter; but disorderly laughter brings about tears.” St. Basil has set a boundary to acceptable laughter: “The mirth of the soul may be revealed to the point of a happy smile which is not improper, as long as it only reveals what is written in Scripture: ‘A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance’” (Prv. 15:13). Also the wise Sirach wrote: “A foolish man raises his voice in laughter, but a prudent man will smile in silence” (Sir 19:30; 20:5-6).

Moreover, when we take into account that our responsible and sinful life is carried on in a valley of sorrows, then even our laughter must be turned to mourning and our smile and joy to grief, as St. James the Brother of the Lord has said: “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection” (Jas. 4:9).2 St. Isidore the Pelousiotes wrote to the presbyter Dorotheos:

  • If the priest is called and is the model for the flock and the light for the church, then it is imperative that this be impressed upon his way of life as a seal is impressed upon wax. If he really wants to be a light to his people he must hate coarse jesting and show of laughter, so that he may not teach many to misbehave. After all, he is a priest, an angel of the Lord God Almighty. An angel cannot be versed in laughter when his purpose is to serve with the fear of God.3

The Lord Himself Did Not Laugh but Cried Four Times

There is one thing that I often pondered about laughter and I am puzzled. I see how the philosophers consider laughter as the counterpart of reason and say that every man is reasonable therefore he must also be laughing. And vice versa: Every laughing person must also be reasonable, because the ability to laugh is, as they say, an essential attribute of the faculty of reason. But beyond this, I see that our Lord, though he received all the natural attributes of human nature, did not appear to have ever used this attribute, as St. Basil noted: “It appears that the Lord submitted to the necessary passions of the flesh and to those that bear the mark of virtue, such as physical weariness and compassion for the suffering. He never once demonstrated laughter, as far as the evangelical history is concerned.”4

Last Supper, Stavronikita Monastery, Refectory, Fresco by Theophanes the Cretan, Cretan School, 1546.
Last Supper, Stavronikita Monastery, Refectory, Fresco by Theophanes the Cretan, Cretan School, 1546.

What conclusions can we draw from this? We conclude that it is not the ability to laugh but rather the ability to cry that is natural to man. For this reason our Lord not only did not laugh himself, but he also spoke against laughter. “Woe unto you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Lk. 6:25). Christ himself did cry on four occasions in his life:

  1. He cried over his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:35);
  2. He cried at the time of his passion. According to the Apostle, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). Also, the prayer and agony in Gethsemane before his betrayal is well attested in the Gospels.
  3. On another occasion Jesus drew near and saw the city of Jerusalem and “wept over it,” mourning the sad fact that she “did not know the time of her visitation” (Lk. 19:41, 44).
  4. Jesus cried a fourth time when he sat with his disciples at the last supper for the loss of Judas. “He was troubled in spirit, and testified, ‘truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me’” (Jn. 13:21). According to St. John Chrysostom, this troubling spirit is to be understood as an expression of his sadness accompanied with tears.

So the Lord himself not only shed tears, but he also blessed with his words the capacity to weep. “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (Lk. 6:21). When therefore the theologians reason and say that Christ in his human nature is a rational being, they do not add that he is also a laughing being. This has not been revealed in the Scriptures, and we therefore prefer to imitate the example of our Lord and avoid laughing as much as possible as something that may bring eternal mourning. Let us therefore embrace a contrite spirit of weeping that is the cause of blessed and eternal joy and laughter.5

But again we have said enough about the fourth sense of taste and the mouth.

download (4)

NOTES:

  1. Broad Rules 17.
  2. John Chrysostom wrote in his homilies: “The present time is one of mourning and sorrow, of constraints and servitude, of sweat and tears, and you laugh!” (Homily 15 on Hebrews). Again he wrote elsewhere: “The present time is not for warm expressions of mirth and joy, but rather for mourning and sorrow and grief, and you spend your time in urban ribaldry!” (Homily 17 on Ephesians).
  3. Epistle no. 319.
  4. Broad Rules 17.
  5. …Time has introduced into the world two types of people. Democritos and Heracleitos. One pondered upon the foolishness of men and had a great capacity for laughter. The other meditated upon the sufferings of mankind and had an aversion to laughter, preferring to cry and mourn. Even if both of these men exceeded the bounds of moderation, it is Democritos, who was always laughing, that is criticized by the moral philosophers as intemperate and facetious, while Heracleitos who was mourning is considered more temperate and more prudent.

Guarding the Imagination (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, a monastic has two main occupations: blind obedience and the Jesus Prayer. All thoughts, images, emotions, etc. are expected to be pushed away with the ceaseless recitation of the Prayer—either noetically or out loud—and in certain cases, by beating oneself with an object or closed fist. A monastic is taught to refrain from all idle and unnecessary talk. Geronda Ephraim states, “The only two phrases that should come out of a monk’s mouth are, ‘Bless’ [evlogeson] and ‘Let it be blessed’ [na’nai evlogemeno], nothing else.” Daydreaming, fantasies, thoughts, conversing in one’s head, recollections, etc., are all expected to be pushed away the moment they appear. Thoughts of any kind whatsoever against the Elder—judging, questioning, criticizing, etc.—are taught to be one of the most serious and dangerous kinds of warfare and they have to be avoided like fire or the devil will drive them out of the monastery. In certain instances, a monastic can be penanced if he or she accepts or consents to certain thoughts. Consenting to carnal thoughts, amongst other things, results in no Holy Communion. Though certain recollections are permitted in certain cases as aids–remembrance of death, hell in moments of pride, remembrance of Paradise, God’s love in moments of despair–the monastic should be focusing on the Prayer.

cherub

In the late 90’s, one of the outside monks asked Geronda Ephraim how he came up with the landscaping plans to make the gardens so beautiful. Geronda Ephraim replied, “It just takes a little imagination,” and all the monks there started to roar into laughter. 

The following article is excerpted from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels, pp. 146-152.

Monstrous races appearing on the edge of a Medieval map.
Monstrous races appearing on the edge of a Medieval map.

The Devil Is Greatly Related to the Imagination and for This Reason Uses It as an Organ of Deception

The devil has a very close relationship and familiarity with the imagination, and of all the powers of the soul he has this one as the most appropriate organ to deceive man and to activate his passions and evils. He indeed is very familiar with the nature of the imagination. For he, being created by God originally as a pure and simple mind without form and image, as the other divine angels, later came to love the forms and the imagination. Imagining that he could set his throne above the heavens and become like God, he fell from being an angel of the light and became a devil of darkness. St. Dionysios spoke about this devil: “What is the evil in the devils? Irrational anger; unreasonable desire; and reckless imagination.” St. Gregory Sinaite also wrote: “The devils were originally minds who fell from that immateriality and refinement and  each of them received a certain material thickness.” The devil uses the imagination as his organ. He deceived Adam through the imagination and raised up to his mind the fantasy of being equal with God. Before the disobedience Adam did not have the imaginative attribute, as St. Maximos noted:

“In the beginning, passion and pain were not created together with the body; nor forgetfulness and ignorance together with the soul; nor the ever changing impressions in the shape of events with the mind. All these things were brought about in man by his disobedience. He who would remove passion and suffering from the body achieves practical virtue; he who would remove forgetfulness and ignorance from the soul has properly attained the natural vision; and he who would release the mind of the many impressions, has acquired the mystery of theology. For the mind of Adam at first was not impressed by the imagination, which stands between the mind and the thoughts, setting up a wal around the mind and not allowing it to enter into the most simple and imageless reasons of created beings. The passionate physical perceptions of the visible things are scales that cover over the clairvoyance of the soul and prevent its passage over to the authentic word of truth.”

Adam, however, was able at first to be attached to the thoughts of the mind and to enter into them without the intermediary of the imagination.

medieval seraphim

The Lord Did Not Have Imagination

The new Adam, our Lord, did not have imaginations, according to the theologians. One of them, Georgios Koresios, wrote in his theological treatise on the Incarnation: “The Lord deserved merit not for his blessed vision and knowledge and the love that flowed from it, but for the knowledge that was poured upon him from God, and which was always active in Christ voluntarily and never interrupted by sleep or any other cause, as it happens in the mind of other men. The mind of Christ was completely independent of the imaginations which become a wall blocking our penetration into the immaterial realities of the spirit.” Not only Adam but most persons who have ever fallen into sin and deceptions, into irrational superstitions and heresies and evil and corrupt doctrines, have all been deceived through the imagination. This is the reason why the holy Fathers call the devil a pantomime and an ancient painter, as we have seen especially in St. Chrysostom. St. Maximos has noted that the devils deceive men not only when awake but also when they are sleeping, but inciting them with the passions of the body through the imagination. This imagination is considered by the Fathers to be a bridge of the devils. St. Kallistos has written: “Imagination is like a multiform and many-head monster similar to the mythical Daedalos and Hydra, which the devil utilizes as a sort of bridge, as the saints have previously noted. These murderous villains communicate and unite themselves with the soul , making it into a hive of parasites, a place of passionate and fruitless thoughts.” St. Gregory the Theologian said that imagination is the cause of both the consent and the act of sin. Do you see now, dear friend, how many evil things imagination brings about? I beseech you therefore, to guard your imagination as much as you possibly can so that no images harmful to the soul are impressed upon it, as they seek to enter through the senses. And if they have already entered, seek not to compromise with them or to give your consent in your heart, but run directly to God through prayer of the heart, which we are going to discuss in the following chapter. St. Syngletike has noted: “It is important not to give your consent to the imaginations. For it is written that if the spirit of the devil arises in you, do not leave the place of your heart, for such a consent is tantamount to wordly fornication” (cf. Eccl 10:4).

9ec6e6b164593aa61812848bc06e83d8

How Should Imagination Be Used and That We Will Be Judged by the Images Imprinted Upon It

I have referred to images harmful to the soul because there are other images which are permissible, as St. Kallistos noted. Such images include the contrition, the grief, and the humility of the heart; the meditations upon death, the future judgement, and the eternal punishments; the study and meditation upon creation and the Incarnation of the Lord; the phenomena of creation, the miracles, and the mysteries of the Lord’s Incarnation – the birth, the baptism, the crucifixion, the burial, the resurrection, and so forth, as we have said before. Finally, it is permissible, when fighting against certain inappropriate and evil imaginations presented by the enemy, to use other appropriate and virtuous imaginations. Do not pay any attention to the shameful and fearful images of the foolish and irrational imagination and do not be frightened by them. Ignore them and consider them unworthy of your attention. They are empty playthings without any true substance. He who is used to ignoring the imaginations can also ignore the real things themselves that are depicted in the imaginations, as St. Maximos has noted: “He who conquers over the passionate fantasies will also be able to prevail over the realities they represent.” Let me conclude this chapter and summarize what I have been saying. Know that if you impress upon the board and chart of your imagination beautiful and appropriate images, you will be praised on the day of judgement, when what each person imagines secretly will be revealed. But if you allow inappropriate and evil images to be recorded and to dwell in your imagination, you will then be condemned, as St. Basil has noted.

Talk of God, of Jesus, and of the Saints may diminish, but the subject of angels always manages to capture popular imagination.
Talk of God, of Jesus, and of the Saints may diminish, but the subject of angels always manages to capture popular imagination.
dog-headed icon of St-Christopher
dog-headed icon of St-Christopher

William Blake's Behemoth and Leviathan

Guarding the Sense of Touch (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: The sense of touch is always a delicate matter in the monasteries because the most innocent things can often incite a very intense carnal warfare. Even St. Nektarios admonished his nuns to refrain from innocent touches, caresses, hugs etc. because it could lead them into carnal sin. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, these protocols are also enforced. Each monastery has its own protocol but generally any form of affection, pats on the backs, handshakes, hugs, massaging and any other form of body to body contact is prohibited. In cases where two monastics have to ask each other forgiveness, the superior may make them give one another a full prostration and then hug to make up. Some superiors hug their monastics and tell them they love them shortly after humbling them and making them cry.

Elder Ephraim of Katounakia & Geronda Ephraim of Arizona
Elder Ephraim of Katounakia & Geronda Ephraim of Arizona

The Sense of Touch and Its Activities

We have reached in our discussion the fifth sense, which is the sense of touch. Even though the activity of this sense is generally considered to be concentrated in the hands, it actually encompasses the entire surface of the body so that every feeling and every part and every organ of the body both external and internal becomes an instrument of this sense of touch. Guard yourself then with great attention from such tender touches that arouse strong feelings, feelings that are mostly in the body and most vulnerable to sin. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in interpreting a passage in the Song of Songs, commented that the sense of touch is the subservient sense, the one most likely created by nature for the blind. It is most difficult for one to be free from the power of this sense, once it has been activated. This is why one must be careful to guard it with all his power.

Even though the power of the other senses seems to be active, it nevertheless seems to be far from the enactment of sin. But the sense of touch is the closest to this enactment and certainly the very beginning and the initial action of the deed.

agiogrfafia_psalmoi4_monazouson

One Should Not Even Touch His Own Body if it is Not Necessary

Be careful not to bring your hands and your feet close to other bodies, especially of the young. Be especially careful not to stretch your hands to touch anything, unless it is necessary, nor upon members of your body, or even to scratch yourself, as St. Isaac the Syrian and other holy Fathers have taught. Even from such minor activities, the sense of touch becomes accustomed, or to put it more correctly, the devil seeks to arouse us toward sin and at the same time to raise up into our mind improper images of desire that pollute the beauty of prudent thoughts. This is why St. John Climacus wrote: “It so happens that we are polluted bodily through the sense of touch.” Even when you go out for the natural needs of your body respect your guardian angel, as St. Isaac has reminded us. Elsewhere this same father has written: “Virgin is not one who has merely preserved one’s body from sexual intercourse, but one who is modest unto oneself even when alone.”

2dj115w

[Note: Monastics have to exercise extreme caution with the sense of touch and their genitalia and other body parts. Many monks will sit when urinating so they do not have to touch their genitalia. Many nuns do not wipe after urinating for fear of accidentally sexually self-stimulating. Both monks and nuns are required to wear their underwear while showering—nuns do not wear bras but some may wear undershirts to avoid looking at, touching, or accidentally self-stimulating via contact with their nipples. They wear the underwear so they do not have to visually see their genitalia. If they are to wash the area with soap, it is done quickly so as not to linger too long in this area. Some monastics do not touch the area with their hands to safeguard from inciting carnal warfare].

The pagan Pythagoras taught that even if there were no other spectator of human evils in heaven or earth, man should have a sense of modesty and shame for himself. When someone does evil, he dishonors and degrades himself. The ancient Athenians had a temple dedicated to the goddess of modesty that would act in the place of God upon the true conscience. Now, if these pagans taught this and had such shame for themselves, when alone, how much more should we Christians be ashamed of ourselves when we are alone in a closed room, or in an isolated lonely place or even in the darkness of night? For it is only right that the modesty and reverence we feel when in a holy temple be also felt for ourselves, since we are a temple of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit. “For we are the temple of the living God” (II Corinthians 6:16).

Again St. Paul wrote: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” (I Corinthians 6:19). St. John Chrysostom has taught us also that our bodies are even more honorable and more revered than a temple. We are a living and rational temple, while a building- temple is lifeless and irrational. Moreover, Christ died for us and not for temples. Therefore it follows that more shame and modesty should be kept for ourselves and for our bodies than for the temple. For this reason, then, anyone who would dare to degrade the holy temple of his body by committing some sinful deed will in truth be more sinful than those who would desecrate the most famous temple.

Again, our pagan forefathers sought to teach men to avoid shameful deeds by asking them to imagine the presence of some important and revered person. If the imaginary presence of mortal men can avert one from doing evil when found alone, how much more can the true and abiding presence of the true and omnipresent and immortal God, who not only sees the external deeds of men but also knows the inner thoughts and feelings of the heart?

Most foolish then are those who are by themselves alone in an isolated or dark place and who have no self-respect and shame, nor remember the presence of God. They may say: “I am now in this darkness, who can see me?” God condemns such persons as being foolish. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? . . . Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:24). “A man who breaks his marriage vows says to himself, “Who sees me? Darkness surrounds me, and the walls hide me, and no one sees me. Why should I fear? The most High will not take notice of my sins.” His fear is confined to the eyes of men, and he does not realize that the eyes of the Lord and ten thousand times brighter than the sun” (Sirach 23:18 – 19).

Romanian Orthodox icon depicting philosophers
Romanian Orthodox icon depicting philosophers

The Use of Luxurious Clothing and What its Use Implies

The use of soft and fine clothing is another matter that we can relate to the sense of touch. Now, if I may be permitted to be more blunt, I want to emphasize especially to hierarchs and priests that they not fall into the error of fantastic apparel which unfortunately many experience because of their bad habits from childhood and the bad examples of others. St. John Chrysostom, first of all, reminded us that the very custom of covering the body with clothing is a perpetual reminder of our exile from Paradise and our punishment, which we received after our disobedience. We who were previously in Paradise, covered by the divine grace and having no need of clothing, find ourselves now in need of covering and clothing for our bodies. The forefathers were naked before the disobedience but not ashamed; after the disobedience they sewed fig leaves together and coverings for their bodies (Genesis 3:7).

1930s-fresco-paris

Therefore, what is the reason for this reminder of our sin and punishment to be done with bright and expensive clothing? “The use of clothing has become a perpetual reminder for us of our exile from the good things of Paradise and a lesson of our punishment which the human race received as a consequence of the original sin of disobedience. There are those who are so affected in their vain imaginations that they say to us that they no longer know the clothing that is made by the wool of the sheep and that they now wear only clothes made of silk . . . . Tell me now, for whom do you so clothe your body? Why are you glad over your particular set of clothing? Why don’t you heed St. Paul who wrote: “If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (I Timothy 6:8).

[NOTE: Many of the abbots and abbesses in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries request silken material for their rouka when women want to make them new clothes. Silk is a very popular material. Though customs vary from monastery to monastery, much of the clothing worn both underneath the rassa and over is top-of-the-line, and sometimes designer brands. Most monastics have at least two pairs of footwear: church/going out shoes and work shoes. However, this can extend to orthopedic sandals, work boots, snow boots (if northern climate), etc. Much of the footwear is orthopedic and expensive. There are monastics in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries who literally have $1-2,000 worth of footwear in their closet. This can also be the cost of a monastic’s wardrobe on any given day].

Mephisto Men's Gusto Oxford
Mephisto Men’s Gusto Oxford

Soft Beds Should Be Avoided for They Are the Cause of Many Evils

In this sense of touch we must also include the soft and comfortable beds and everything that has to do with our comfort. Inasmuch as these may contribute to our spiritual harm, they must be avoided by all, but especially the young. Such comforts weaken the body; they submerge it into constant sleep; they warm it beyond measure, and therefore kindle the heat of passion. This is why the prophet Amos wrote: “Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches” (Amos 6:4). Once a young monk asked an elder (monk) how to guard himself against the carnal passions. The elder replied that he should avoid overeating, avoid slander and all those activities which excite carnal passions. The monk however was unable to find the cure for his passion even after observing carefully all the admonitions of the elder. He would return to the elder again and again for advice until he became a burden for the elder. Finally, the patient elder got up and followed the brother to his cell. Upon seeing the soft bed where he slept, the elder exclaimed: “Here, here, is the cause of your struggle with carnal desire, dear brother!” . . .

download

[NOTE: In the early years of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, some monastics had a blessing to get special orthopedic mattresses due to chronic pain and other health issues. Later on, in some monasteries, orthopedic mattresses would be bought for all the monastic cells. Ascetic feats such as sleeping on the floor and other hardships of self-denial are generally frowned upon in the monasteries as they are said to lead to delusion and not necessary in these last days].

On Guarding the Sense of Taste (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: In most of Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, guarding the sense of taste is virtually ignored. The main requirement is blind obedience and the Prayer with the belief that the perfect application of these two things will bring all the other virtues to a monastic. Fasting from the required foods on the required days is about the extent of fasting that exists in the monasteries. Monastics can get a blessing to not eat all the food on their plates and not eat desserts though many times it is denied. Monastics are warned that wanting to fast or not eat desserts can lead to delusion because when a monastic goes down that path, they will start getting proud thoughts because they fast better than the other monastics or they don’t eat desserts so they are more virtuous and have more self-control. This will lead to judging the other monastics and especially judging their Geronda or Gerondissa who also eat desserts. Out of all the abbots and abbesses, it is really only Geronda Paisios who has maintained a regime of ascesis, fasting and self-denial when it comes to the area of foods. Unlike the other abbots, he does not drink soda, eat desserts, and other pleasurable foods. He never drinks cold water, always room temperature, etc. In most of the other monasteries, fasting and ascesis are dismissed as the quickest way to pride and delusion.

The following article is taken from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels, pp. 107-112

 nicodemus-of-the-holy-mountain57835sm

The fourth sense is that of taste and generally speaking that of the mouth. Here, indeed, we find a great marketplace! This sense is like the great chasm that was suddenly opened in Rome and was so deep that no matter how much earth and debris was thrown into it, it simply disappeared and was never filled up, as the historians have written. Also this sense of the mouth is like a gulf so wide that it can contain all the edible provisions which the earth and sea produce. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, the mouth is like a large broken earthen jar that is always filled and yet always remains empty. In a word, it is an insatiable Hades. Even though the sense of taste is fourth in line, I consider it to be first in terms of power. Be careful therefore to shut out of this door of your senses the negative effects of so many varieties of foods. Avoid then the sumptuous meals. Avoid the bewitching artistry of the chefs. Avoid wantonness and wastefulness in food. For what else were these delicacies invented? Certainly, you cannot say that they serve some need or function of the body, but only that cursed pleasure of taste in the mouth. What indeed are the effects of such a variety of foods? Nothing good, of course, comes of them, except passions and evils to the soul and to the body. Greedy licking, satiety, and gluttony are the first offspring. If we go deeper we find drunkenness, rapacity, obesity, gout in the feet and in the hands, and even paralysis. If we go even deeper than this we can also find fornication, homosexuality, and virtually all of the carnal and irrational passions that come under the influence of the stomach. These then are the evil by-products of irrational indulgence in the delicate and tasty things of the mouth.

The mouth is an insatiable Hades.
The mouth is an insatiable Hades.

Sumptuous eating deprives One of Piety & Harms, Especially Young People 

Sumptuous eating is harmful to all without exception, but especially to the young. The natural reason for this is obvious. The natural warmth of the young person is enhanced when it receives the fatty matter of various foods. The heavy foods consumed draw out the heavy excretions of digestion in the stomach. These in turn are converted into substances and blood and eventually into fatty tissue. The abundance of food creates a fat body that is susceptible to the forceful temptations of one’s sexuality.

Thus treated and exposed, the poor body becomes a flaming fire, a Babylonian furnace. If the young body is a wild and untamed animal even when it lacks essential nourishment, imagine what it is like when it is well fed! All young people know this because they experience these passions on a daily basis. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian said: “Its own evil is sufficient for the body. Why add to the existing fire any additional fuel, or any more nourishment to the beast? It will only become more difficult to control and more violent (forceful) than the mind.”

The monks in Texas after breaking the Clean Monday and Tuesday fast following Presanctified this morning (mid-2000s)
The monks in Texas after breaking the Clean Monday and Tuesday fast following Presanctified this morning (mid-2000s)

Solomon too said: “It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury” (Proverbs 19:10). In interpreting this passage, St. Basil considered the body of a young person to be “a fool.” “What is more senseless than the body of a young person prone to easy temptations?” He asked.

Now if you cannot avoid these fatty foods completely, then set a discipline for yourself to eat only once a day, as many spiritual persons, hierarchs, and even worldly leaders do. In this manner the body is kept lighter and healthier and the mind is clearer and more capable of advancing upon divine thoughts. Even then, it is important not to overeat.

The Three Degrees of Eating

According to St. Gregory the Sinaite there are three degrees in eating: temperance, sufficiency, and satiety. Temperance is when someone wants to eat some more food but abstains, rising from the table still somewhat hungry. Sufficiency is when someone eats what is needed and sufficient for normal nourishment. Satiety is when someone eats more than enough and is more than satisfied. Now if you cannot keep the first two degrees and you proceed to the third, then, at least, do not become a glutton, remembering the words of the Lord: “Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger” (Luke 6:25).

Remember also that rich man who ate in this present life sumptuously every day, but who was deprived of the desired bosom of Abraham in the next life, simply because of this sumptuous eating. Remember how he longed to refresh his tongue with a drop of water. St. Basil not only did not forgive the young people who ate to satiety but also those who ate until satisfied; he preferred that all eat temperately. He said, “Nothing subdues and controls the body as does the practice of temperance. It is this temperance that serves as a control to those youthful passions and desires.” 1

The Rich Man & Lazarus illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach
The Rich Man & Lazarus illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach

St. Gregory the Theologian has also noted in his poetry: “No satiety has brought forth prudent behavior; for it is in the nature of fire to consume matter. And a filled stomach expels refined thoughts; it is the tendency of opposites to oppose each other.” Job, too, assuming that one could fall into sin through eating, offered sacrifice to God for his sons who were feasting among themselves. “And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said: “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts’” (Job 1:5-8).

In interpreting this passage Olympiodoros wrote: “We learn from this that we ought to avoid such feasts which can bring on sinfulness. We must also purify ourselves after they have been concluded, even if these are conducted for the sake of concord and brotherly love as in the case of the sons of Job.”

Surely then, if the sons of Job were not at a feast but in prayer or some other spiritual activity, the devil would not have dared to destroy the house and them, as Origen interpreted the passage: “The devil was looking for an opportunity to destroy them. Had he found them reading, he would not have touched the house, having no reason to put them to death. Had he found them in prayer, he would not have had any power to do anything against them. But when he found an opportune time, he was powerful. What was the opportune time? It was the time of feasting and drinking.” Do you see then, dear reader, how many evils are brought forth by luxurious foods and feasting in general?

a-69

Hierarchs, Priests, and Every Christian Ought Not to Break the Fast of Each Wednesday and Friday

Let me add here that after abstaining from rich foods and sumptuous feasts, you must also keep the prescribed fast of each Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, except of course for those times when no fast is required by the practice of the church calendar. Even if others may break this fast by including wine and oil in their diet on Wednesday and Friday, you ought not to imitate them, whoever they might be, for the holy canons require this rule to be kept. The 69th Apostolic Canon considers the fasting rules of each Wednesday and Friday to be the very same as that of Great Lent. “Any bishop, priest, deacon, subdeacon, reader, or chanter who does not fast during Great Lent and each Wednesday and Friday is to be deposed, except if he is prevented from doing so because of a bodily illness. If the person is a layman who does not fast, he is to be rejected.” The same kind of austerity is expressed by the 5th Canon of Peter of Alexandria: “I agree with St. James who called the well fed sheep for slaughter: ‘You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter’” (Jas. 5:5).2 St. Gregory the Theologian had no kind compliments for feasting when he considered it to be nothing but manure. St. Isaac the Syrian too considered the wasting of food as only appropriate to swine. This is why a wise man, seeing that inscription on the tomb of Sardanapal the glutton which read: “I have as much as I have eaten and have drunk and have enjoyed,” concluded: “This inscription is indeed appropriate for a pig!”3

King Sardanapalus and His Consort
King Sardanapalus and His Consort

God Will Put Gluttons to the Test

I praise the Most High God many times who has never neglected to put the gluttons who are always feasting to the test. Sometimes he permits the sons of Job to be crushed to death in the house of their cohorts; sometimes he destroys through Sampson the palace where the gentiles were eating and reveling. God disrupted the feast of Balthasar by that fearful hand which was writing on the wall, and he brought great sorrow to the hearts of the revelers who were feasting with the tetrarch Herond on account of the beheading of the Forerunner. Do you see, dear brother, how hateful a thing this gluttonous feasting and drinking is in the sight of God? This is why the Prophet Amos condemned such unrighteous feasting. “Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp…who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (Am. 6:4-6). Whatever I have said so far about sumptuous foods, I also say about aromatic wines. St. Gregory the Theologian has noted, “Let us not honor the wines that have the scent of flowers.”4 It should also be noted that the quantity of wine be limited to two or three glasses, especially for the young. The elder Sisoes was once asked if it is too much for someone to drink three glasses of wine. He answered that if there was no Satan, then it would not be too much. The Spartan Leotychides, too, was asked by the Spartans did not drink wine. He answered that the Spartans refrained from drinking wine so that others would not receive instruction from their consequent bad behavior. And he was right because wine clouds the mind and does not permit it to know the truth and the correct and benevolent advice. Now, when much wine is consumed, then the mind is totally clouded, like the extra oil that snuffs out the lamp. Thus another sober person is required to offer advice and guidance to him who is drunk.

 Sisoes

What One Must Do to Avoid Overeating & Other Sins of the Tongue

When eating and drinking, always remember the Psalm: “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?” (Psalms 30:9). St. Basil has advised that we recall this verse in order to help us avoid overeating and overdrinking, as he has interpreted it in the following manner:

“What is the need for robustness of flesh and an abundance of blood if their future is to be delivered over to the common corruption of the body? For this reason I constrain and deprive my body, otherwise my blood becomes so robust and overzealous that it makes my flesh to sin. Do not therefore flatter your body with sleep and baths and soft beds, but always recall the saying: ‘What profit is there for my blood if I go down to the Pit?’ Why do you care for the lesser thing that will later become corrupt? Why do you bother to make yourself fat? Do you not know that the fatter you make your body so much heavier will be the soul’s prison?”

In this sense of the mouth are also included all those sins which are enacted by the tongue: condemnation, slander,5 mocking, insults, unreasonable excommunications, curses, reprimands, obscene talk, and all the other idle and vain words. From all these we must guard ourselves as much as possible, for as you know, we must give an account for every vain and idle word, according to the Sacred Scriptures (Matthew 12:36)…

Trapeza on the Feast Day of Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)
Trapeza on the Feast Day of Holy Archangels Monastery (TX)

NOTES

  1. Broad Rules 15.
  2. I read once an amusing story about two men who met each other. One loved to eat a lot and was fat and robust, the other exercised self-control and was very thin and ascetic looking. The fat man greeted, “Welcome, spirit without a body!” And the thin man responded, “Welcome, body without a spirit!” Is it not true that this is the only gain of such well-fed persons: a heavy body that is difficult to maneuver and often troubled by ailments? While the body of the ascetic person is thin, healthy, and resilient. Moreover, it has been shown that gluttons die much sooner than those who exercise self-control in their eating habits. Hippocrates said: “The fat people die much sooner than thin people do…The mother of health is not to be over-satisfied with food, and the ability to bear pains.”
  3. Remember that the ascetic fathers on the Holy Mountain, who sit to eat on the 9th hour on days of fasting, experience greater sweetness and joy in tasting their simple meal and drinking their simple water than the gluttons who devour sumptuous pheasants and other rich foods and drinks. And as the wise Solomon said: “He who is sated loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet” (Prv. 27:7). St. Basil too made the same point: “If you wish to make your meals desirable, accept the change that is brought about by the period of fasting. Something that is enjoyed to satiety through continuous use is easily rejected. The things rarely acquired are the things most especially enjoyed” (Homily 1 on Fasting).

It can be said about all those who love to eat in excess all sorts of rich foods that they do not simply eat to live, as in the normal and reasonable case, but rather they live in order to eat, which is characteristic of irrational beings and beasts. The mind of Christians will surely be much more miserable than these if, after the Grace of the Gospel and the hope of eternal life, it becomes like that of pagans of old who had no other concern but to enjoy sumptuous and endless feasts. And, again, the Christian becomes a miserable person if he abandons his proper nourishment, which is the study and practice of spiritual things, to preoccupy himself with unworthy bodily foods and the worship of the stomach, which will be done away with.

  1. Homily on the Nativity.

 TX

On Guarding the Sense of Smell (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: When it comes to fragrances, each monastery under Geronda Ephraim has its own particular brand of favorite fragrances and products. Many of the Superiors and hieromonks use fragrant lotions and sanitizers for their hands (i.e. Lavender, Myrrh, Sandalwood, etc.), which some of the simpler pilgrims, after kissing their hand, have assumed the chemical fragrance was a testimony of sanctity. Some monasteries wipe the glass covers of the Church icons with myrrh or rose water for the weekend and when large groups of pilgrims visit. In one monastery, after the ekklesiastiko told the superior that many pilgrims thought the icons were emitting a fragrance and were amazed at the “miracle”, he was instructed not to inform people that he wipes the glass with a fragrance and to deny knowing the source if asked.

Avalon-Organics-Hand-and-Body-Lotion-Lavender-

The teachings in this article are somewhat obsolete for the monasteries except in certain cases. The situations where these teachings are not obsolete are when monastics who clean guest houses start obsessively smelling the guests’ clothing or bedding, or if they steal or use a guest’s deodorant, soap, shampoo, or perfume [i.e. they don’t steal the item, but use it on themselves when cleaning the guest rooms]. For those kinds of transgressions a monk or nun will get a severe penance and many times will be removed from that diakonima. In other cases, when a monastic has a carnal warfare with some aspect or gender involved with the guest houses, they may be banned from cleaning those guest houses [i.e. a monk being triggered by feminine odors while cleaning women’s washrooms may only be allowed to clean male guest houses; a nun being triggered by masculine odors while changing bed sheets may only be allowed to clean female guest houses. Monastics who have homosexual or lesbian warfare will be banned from their same gender guest houses].

Guest quarters at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)
Guest quarters at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)

Another area of fragrances in the monasteries, which vary from monastery to monastery, is laundry and laundry detergent. At St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona, all the monks hand wash their own clothing in a bucket or their bathtub (except for Geronda Ephraim who has a cell attendant to wash his clothes in a laundry machine and iron them, etc.). This has caused some people to criticize the monks of St. Anthony’s of being dirty and smelly. Some monasteries follow the hand wash routine, others use washing machines. Some monasteries use neutral, fragrance free Arm & Hammer type detergents while others use fragrant detergents and fragrant fabric softener. Ironing can be done with or without cornstarch spray. Most superiors have a cell attendant who washes and irons their clothing amongst other chores.

febreze

Though changing clothing has different protocols in each monastery, a general guideline would be to wear the same sock and underwear for a few days in a row before using a clean pair. The same with other garments—undershirt, pants, etc. Generally nuns don’t wear bras and there are different allowances during their menstrual cycles. With showering, generally the monastics use neutral shampoos and soaps, though sometimes sweet and strong fragrances are allowed. However, deodorant, beauty creams, etc. are forbidden to monastics as is shaving and trimming hair (beards for the monks, armpits, legs, etc. for the nuns). As an economia, some of the African-American monks in Arizona have been allowed to cut and do things with their hair if it proves unmanageable when long. The protocol varies from monastery to monastery but a full shower can be anywhere from every 7-10 days up to every 40 days. Washing the lower parts can vary as well. Though as a rule, monks and nuns wear undergarments when they shower so they do not have to look at their genitals and be incited into a carnal warfare. baths are forbidden to monastics as they are “effeminate and worldy,” though some monastics will periodically take a bath if sick or for other “health benefits.” As with all things, there are always exceptions to the rule.

herbal-essences-classic-collections

The following article is excerpted from The Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 101-103, On Guarding the Sense of Smell:

A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels (Softcover)

What Are Some Negative Results of Fragrances

The third sense in line is that of smell, and this too must be guarded and kept pure. For example, one must not be carried away by the fragrances of myrrhs and perfumes, for they not only weaken the manly character of the soul and give it an effeminate air, they also may incite the soul toward fornications and moral licentiousness. It is already well established that the external assaults upon the senses bring about a corresponding tendency and change in the body, and by the same token the changes in the body affect corresponding changes in the soul. Veros the eparch of Sicily, who in his character and behavior resembled a wild boar, confirms this fact. For as he was given up to the fragrances, he was also similarly given up to licentiousness. We read about this person in the history books that he was no eparch, but rather a slave to hedonistic pleasures. In fact he was so enslaved to the fragrance of roses that he never wanted to be without them. To achieve this he devised a net filled with roses to be placed before him at all times so that he could readily and continuously smell that captivating fragrance. Something similar is done by those who keep horses when they suspend bags filled with barley before them. Much like these dumb animals then, the hopeless eparch walked the streets of Sicily like another boar of May. The truly very refined fragrance of roses harmonized very badly with the nostrils of such a vile and foul-smelling animal.

Marcus Aurelius Antonius was one of the most debauched of all the Roman emperors.
Marcus Aurelius Antonius was one of the most debauched of all the Roman emperors.

This foolish and senseless habit of Veros was outdone by Marcus Aurelius, who was so immersed in the habit of pleasing his senses that he would literally fill up a pool of rose water and would swim in it with joy and pleasure. Moreover, he also had the habit of using the most precious and sweet-smelling myrrh in his lamps so that as they burned he would again be pleased by their fragrance. The hedonistic desire to please the sense of smell can reach such bizarre foolishness. Not far from this particular foolishness is also the habit of those who attempt to please all their senses through the use of fragrances in general. They like to add fragrant substances to everything—their foods, drinks, their clothes, mattresses, and so forth. They do not realize, the poor souls, that this living body of ours is a veritable container of smells, but after death it becomes food for worms and foul smelling. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian said: “Do not allow your sense of smell to be effeminate; do not honor the luxury of perfumes.”

WA St John's Soap

What Experience Is Gained by Those Who Use the Fragrances

The Prophet Amos leveled a very severe criticism against those who were using such fragrances: “Woe to those…who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (6:6). The Prophet Isaiah also pronounced a curse upon the prominent daughters of Zion who were haughty and who dressed themselves with fine clothing and anointed themselves with a variety of precious perfumes: “The Lord will smite…the heads of the daughters of Zion…Instead of perfumes there will be rottenness…and instead of a rich robe, a girding of sack cloth; instead of beauty, shame” (3:17f.). Wanting to avoid this curse, the great St. Arsenios trained himself to endure humbly even the foul smell. He would never change the water in which he soaked the palms of date tress and the young shoots which he braided into baskets, so that after a long time the water became very foul smelling. When asked why he did this, he answered that with this rule he wanted to repay for all the myrrh and perfumes which he had enjoyed in the world and among the kingdoms. See also the 16th Canon of the 7th Ecumenical Council which decreed that bishops and clergy who use perfumes must correct this improper habit. However, if they persist in using perfumes, they must be given a penance.

Prophet Amos

If you really want your body, my brother, to be fragrant and to exude a pleasant odor, do not remain idle. Do each day 50 or even 100 prostrations and as many reverences as you can. Naturally the activity of the body creates heat, which evaporates certain unnecessary liquids of the body and digests others and thereby makes the body thin. It is these liquids of the body and digests others and thereby makes the body thin. It is these liquids of the body that produce the heavy and unpleasant odor of the body. So when the body is dried out and made thin, it becomes more vital, well-managed, and consequently pleasant smelling. According to natural scientists, dryness is the most effective way to produce a pleasant odor. This is why, as we have read in history books, the body of King Alexander had a pleasant odor because of the natural dryness and warmth which it possessed. Similarly fragrant was the body of the wise Ioannis Tzetzos and of all his generation, as he himself wrote in his commentary to the poet Hesiod. This is again the reason why the bodies of virtually all the craftsmen and laborers and especially of the ascetic monks do not exude any heavy odor, but rather exude a pleasant and fragrant odor. St. Isaac also wrote about this and said: “The odor of an anchorite [an ascetic monk living all alone] is most sweet, and to encounter him brings joy to the heart of those who have discernment.”

nikodimos-2

Three Evils are Born from Hedonistic Melodies (St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite)

NOTE: In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, as a general rule, monastics are only allowed to listen to Orthodox Christian chanting for music. Some monastics may have blessing for classical music and Greek Kalanta, but in general the only music put on a monastic’s iPod is Byzantine or Znamenny chants (polyphonic choirs are frowned upon). Due to temptations to listen to worldy music, monastics have alarm clocks without am/fm radios. Though in some monasteries, monastics have been known to steal am/fm radio clocks from the guest houses.

In one monastery, a monk stole a cd/radio player from a Mexican work crew doing the drywall. As they were in a monastery and did not even suspect a monk stole it from inside the cab of their pickup truck, they suspected and accused an Ecuadorian stonemason crew. Violence almost erupted and an ethnic division occurred. It wasn’t until much later that it was discovered that this monk stole it. Though disciplined harshly, this monk was allowed to remain in the monastery due to his father being a priest at one of Geronda Ephraim’s nunneries. It is said that the Abbot was debating putting a spy camera in this monk’s cell to monitor him because he did so many sneaky things there and hid many of these things when going to confession.

3

Generally, the only time monastics are exposed to worldly music is when they go to a doctor’s office, shopping for supplies, or if they eat out at a restaurant like Red Lobster. Monastics are usually counselled to focus on the prayer and try to ignore or block out the music. Many times the songs a monastic hears while out of the monastery will come back to mind during their personal vigil or Church service. Years ago, a nun under Geronda Ephraim went grocery shopping with her Gerondissa. An Elton John song came on the radio and the young novice nun started singing along. The Gerondissa slapped her right there in the grocery store and told her never to do that again.

The following article is taken from A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels, pp. 97-99

A Handbook of Spiritual Counsels (Hardcover)

Three Evils are Born from Hedonistic Melodies

The second sense is that of hearing and one must be careful to guard it from corrupt melodies, which are composed for pleasure and which pour out the sweet honey of sound unto the ears. It seems to me that there are three evils that come from such melodies:

1. these hedonistic and worldly songs tend to weaken the manly and proud bearing of the soul so that it becomes effeminate and lethargic as it listens to these sweet sounds.

2. these sensual songs tend to fill up the mind with the many passionate images which they describe.

3. let us suppose that even if the persons doing the singing are not seen—and especially when these may be women—nevertheless the songs themselves are capable of impressing the imagination, moving the desire of the heart and drawing out an asset from the soul.

This is why St. Basil taught us: “Do not submit your souls to corrupt melodies that come to us through the ears. Many passions that enslave us have been caused to grow in our natures by this sort of music.”1 St. Gregory the Theologian in one of his paschal homilies said: “Let us not have the flute played to our hearing.” And in his Iambic Poetry he wrote, “Block your ears with wax, and foolish words hear not, nor pleasant songs or thrilling melodies.”

Odysseus & the Sirens | Greek vase, Paestan red figure krater.
Odysseus & the Sirens | Greek vase, Paestan red figure krater.

It may appear to us like a myth (even though I now hear that seaman of today do this) when we hear that the cunning Odysseus of old shut the ears with wax to avoid hearing the sweet and hypnotic voices of the Sirens. It is true however that metaphorically speaking one who is prudent must block his hearing from receiving such effeminate melodies which eat away at the soul like the deadly Sirens of the passions. This is the reason why Xenocrates instructed the young to wear a sort of covering over their ears in order to protect their ears from hearing hedonistic and improper conversations.

Bouzouki_tetrachordo

At this point I recall an improper custom that is connected with worldly weddings. After the couple has been blessed and the people have sat at table, the bishop or priest being present, it is customary during the course of the meal for musicians to come and play musical instruments and sing songs. I regard this custom improper and unbecoming for Christian people. This is why from earlier times certain regional synods have decreed certain canons2 against such practices, emphasizing at the same time that Christians ought to celebrate their wedding soberly and piously, avoiding everything that does not befit their way of life. In keeping with these canons, the clergy are to encourage the people to avoid extreme worldly manifestations at the wedding feasts. In fact they are required to depart from such feasts when the people refuse to heed their pious counsel.

Bird at St. Anthony's Monastery (February 2015)

After the hedonistic sounds of human voices and musical instruments, one must also guard his ears against similar sounds from birds, such as parrots, nightingales, finches, canaries, and other song birds [Note: Geronda Ephraim kept song birds in cages in the old Gerontikon. Other monasteries keep song birds, too]. The same holds true with the barking of small dogs, which are often cared for at great expense in the homes not only of the laity but also of the clergy [Note: The German Shepherds at St. Anthony’s Monastery remain outside and are used as guard dogs]. I hope and pray that you will avoid the vanity of such things and if you now have such animals in your home, please see to it that they are taken away [Note: The cats at Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries are kept around mainly to eat mice and other vermin that infest the monastery grounds. The exotic aquariums are kept because they are beautiful and watching fish is relaxing. The goats and chickens are kept for food purposes and the monastics are advised not to develop attachments to them]. It is truly improper and scandalous for Christians to see and hear in the home of the bishop or priest the sights and sounds of dogs and birds, where in fact they ought to see and hear only what is modest and reverent. People who keep such animals at home often become so attached to them that they love and care for them much more than they do for rational human beings like themselves [Note: This is why Geronda Ephraim has banned his monastics from petting the monastery cats and other animals—it cultivates an unmonastic affection. Monastics who pet cats usually have to do 50 or more prostrations for their disobedience. Fr. Gerontios was known to throw the cats in the air for some reason]. This extreme situation is confirmed by the Emperor Honorius, who was more concerned about the well-being of his parrot called “Rome” than for the actual city of Rome itself, as reported by the historians. Moreover, various ambassadors of foreign countries living in Rome kept dogs and cared for them as if they were their very children. This prompted Caesar to ask the humorous but ironic question: “In their countries do the wives bear children or not?” Man in his irrationality reaches the point of keeping even poisonous and deadly serpents.

One of the cats at St. Anthony's Monastery (AZ)
One of the cats at St. Anthony’s Monastery (AZ)

There is also the bizarre practice of becoming attached to certain trees and plants. Historians refer to a certain Roman emperor who became very fond of a certain myrrh-bearing Arabian tree, which he kept in a special room by the sea. He not only cared for it and nourished it, but hung garlands of flowers over it. A similar story is told of Xerxes the king of Persia who so loved a certain oak tree that he used to decorate it like a bride with fine garments, ornaments, and jewelry. He even placed royal crowns on its branches and watered it with precious perfumes and waters. One might say the decorator of this tree was actually more insensible than the tree that he was decorating! [Note: the monasteries that do get Christmas trees for their gifts do not decorate them as elaborately as the above examples. Often it is just Christmas lights, ornaments and some Orthodox or Greek traditional stuff. The gifts for the monastics are placed underneath and opened after the monastics awake from the 2nd sleep after the Vigil/meal. By New Year’s Day, the tree is usually disposed of].

Christmas Tree Lights along the pathway at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)
Christmas Tree Lights along the pathway at St. Nektarios Monastery (NY)

NOTES:

  1. Address to the Young Men.
  2. The Synod of Laodicia, Canons 53, 54: “That Christians attending weddings must not jump about or dance, but must eat or dine in decent manner, as becomes Christians” (53) and “That members of the Priesthood and Clerics must not witness spectacles at weddings or suppers, but, before the actors taking part in theatricals enter, they are to rise and leave” (54).
  3. mus-mss