Orthodox America


  Letters of Spiritual Counsel


By Archbishop Theophan of Poltava

We can enter into communion with the Lord only by fulfilling God's commandments

You described to me the state of your spiritual development in detail. I will answer your detailed descriptions with a few brief words, but I will express the essence of the matter as it was formulated by the Holy Fathers. We can enter into communion with the Lord only by fulfilling God's commandments. This is the only true path. Apart from this path, genuine communion with the Lord is impossible. What does take place comes from fantasy and spiritual delusion and this is what constitutes the essence of what we call mysticism. But the path of fulfilling God's commandments is the path of constant virtuous deeds. Our nature is decrepit and damaged and for this reason ill-prepared to fulfill God's commandments. This is why compelling oneself continually to fulfill God's commandments is a distinctive and essential feature of Orthodox asceticism. In this way, through fulfillment of God's commandments, we gain experience in recognizing the infirmity of our nature. But we must not limit ourselves to this experience: otherwise we might fall into depression and despair. We must, being convinced of the infirmity of our nature, pray for assistance from the Lord, and pray that God's grace will fill our nature. Experience in recognizing our infirmity is given to us for this purpose, not to bring depression. From this point of view, everything that you are experiencing is understandable. You are being schooled in the experience of recognizing the infirmity of your own nature. You have only to use the fruits of this learning correctly. In so much as you sincerely compel yourself to do God's commandments, an understanding of the infirmity of your being will be born in you, and in as much as you have this understanding, one of the basic Christian virtues, humility, will in turn be born. God's grace is given only for humility, not for works, although humility is engendered by works. This is the law of true asceticism. In every case, however, one must judge correctly what God's will is and how it should be fulfilled. No matter what, one must fulfill God's will; but at the same time do not forget even for one minute that our God is both a holy and an all-loving God. Literally this means that in all circumstances real evil must be decisively swept away, but we must regard human infirmities tolerantly, remembering our own infirmities! Always think to yourself, what would our Lord and Savior have done in this case, and I think that you will discover the correct solution for every difficult situation!                    Varna, 7/19/1930


Quantity and quality in prayer

You ask about prayer: if duties prevent one from devoting much time to prayer, may one, in accordance with Bishop Ignatius' instructions, substitute quality for quantity, since obedience to duties prepares one for diligent prayer?

       I will answer in the words of the Holy Fathers, that in prayer quantity is not as significant as quality. "Quantity in prayerful singing of the Psalms is indeed wonderful” said St. Nicetas Stethatos, "when it is guided by patience and attention; but in fact it is quality which enlivens the soul and engenders the fruit (of prayer). Quality in singing Psalms and in prayer entails praying in spirit and with the mind. A person prays with the mind when, singing and praying, he reviews in his mind the contents of the Holy Scriptures and by accepting in his heart God-pleasing thoughts, facilitates the ascension of his understanding to God. By such thoughts the soul, mentally trapped in the atmosphere of the world, is illuminated and cleansed, and gazes, enraptured, to the heavens and perceives the beauties of bliss prepared there for the Saints, the bliss for which the soul burns with desire. At that moment the fruit of prayer takes the form of a flow of tears caused by the radiant Spirit, tears which give the soul a taste so sweet, that often he who is vouchsafed it will completely forget bodily food. This is the fruit of prayer engendered by quality in singing Psalms, born in the souls of those who pray well" (Second Century, para. 70).

       To ensure that quality in prayer might prevail over quantity, one must devote all of one's life and all of one's duties to thoughts of God and one must do everything for God's sake. Basil the Great expressed this thought well:

      "His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Ps. 33:1). It seems that the prophet is promising something impossible. How can praise of God be constantly in a man's mouth? When ho is engaged m ordinary worldly conversation, praise of God is not in his mouth. When he sleeps he remains altogether silent. When he eats and drinks, how can his mouth pronounce praise? We answer that the inner man has a spiritual mouth, by means of which he is nourished, receiving the word of life, which is the bread which came down from heaven (John 6:,56). Indeed the Lord advises that this mouth be opened wide for abundant consumption of the nourishment of truth. For it is said: Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it (Ps. 80:10). For this reason contemplation of God, once it is fixed and fastened like a seal by the dominant force of the soul, can be called praise of God, which forever dwells in the soul. A discerning person, according to the Apostle's exhortation, can do everything to the glory of God, so that every act, every word, every mental exercise will receive the strength of praise: whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God (I Cor. 10:31). The heart of such a person keeps vigil even when he is asleep, as is written in the Song of Solomon: I slept, but my heart was awake (Song of Solomon 5:2)" (Explanation of Psalm 33).

      It is evident from what is written that Bishop Ignatius' instructions are applicable not only to your situation, but are a must for every Christian who leads an active life. A Christian must not reject his life, but transform it When the sun rises in the earthly sky, all of nature is transformed. Similarly, when contemplation of God is established in our heart, it, like the sun, begins to light up and transform our whole life. Such a life not only does not get in the way of prayer, but leads us to prayer and in such a life even the briefest prayer is ardent.   
Sofia, 11/2/1927


Lamentation of sins and the accusation of the conscience

The difference between "lamentation of sins" and the "accusation of the conscience" is the following: the conscience accuses us of our sins, independent of our freedom to choose in the matter; the conscience is part of our nature. We are, however, free to choose whether we will lament our sins. We can bewail our sins, but we can also ignore the accusation of our conscience. Thus the accusation of conscience precedes lamentation and lamentation follows after accusation. At confession one must repent of everything that his conscience accuses him of. If the clergy man takes the sins more lightly than the one confessing, he should not be disturbed. The priest can regard the mater “objectively,” but the person who is confessing experiences it “personally,” and things which seem unimportant from an objective point of view might be significant in the context of personal experience. Each is correct in his own way so long as the clergyman is not careless and the person confessing is not exaggerating.

   As far as your husband’s friend, who finds the Church “antiquated,” is concerned, there is no point in arguing with him. If the matter comes up, tell him the following: “Many things seem incomprehensible to us only because we have not actually experienced what the Holy Fathers of the Church and the ascetics experienced. As our religious conscience grows, much that is incomprehensible now will consequently become comprehensible!” 
Sofia, 11/26/30 

Excerpted, with kind permission, from the publisher, from Selected Letters of Archbishop Theophan of Poltava and Perevaslavka, translated by Antonina Laura Janda, St. John of Kronstadt Press, Liberty, TN, 1989.


Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
© 1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society