A Letter to those who criticize
Taken from Letters of Bishop Ignaty Branchianinnov, Volume 7, Moscow, 1993. Letter 57, page 78.
To a hieromonk of the St Sergius Hermitage, who had denounced [the Holy Hierarch] Archimandrite Ignaty in writing, for his variable disposition to those around him, and to himself in particular.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Placing my hope on the help of God and His strength, which acts through feeble people, I have decide to answer your letter, similarly with a letter. And this is more so in order that my mind not become distracted in a personal conversation, and not exhaust itself in noisy words, but rather in the quiet solitude of my kelia maintain a peaceful state, which is the condition for seeing Truth. Now I stand before Her, and illuminated by Her light, I look at my soul and check with what I see in your accusation. What then do I see? I see wounds in my soul, I see the multitude of her illnesses, I see weaknesses, of which some are natural to it, and others a result of injuries and diseases, past and present. I turn my attention to my life so far: I see that it is a chain of sins, a chain of falls; almost at every step I was mocked and insulted by the devil due to my lack of spiritual wisdom, due to an excess of pride, my unwillingness to ask advice from my neighbour. Such is the state of my soul, now when my life’s journey has reached more than half my days. Meanwhile my body has become weak; It is pierced and cut to pieces by various ailments. They are messengers; they proclaim the approach of the separation of the soul from the body. Soon, soon I will lie down on the bed, not in order to give my overworked body temporary rest, but to shed it off myself in the ark of the coffin, in the bowels of the earth, from which I was taken, until the future general resurrection. Remember me O Lord in Thy Kingdom: for my soul is sick, and the body is imprinted with sin. In my state, it would be more seemly for me to leave everything, and without hindrance, surrender oneself to inconsolable weeping; when all is lost, at least not to lose repentance.
But to achieve this state, which I recognize as the most decent for myself, I do not use any means other than my feeble prayer, in which I ask for the fulfillment of God’s will in me. This petition for of the will of God is instilled by fear of asking for something that exceeds my strength. This fear is suggested by experience itself: because in all experiences where my strength was tested, my weakness was revealed; Wherever the demons depicted before my mind a picture of the brilliant successes, there, in fact, turned out to be damage, there arose a disaster, there a fatal abyss was covered with flowers. I realized the deceit after committing to the deception; I learned of the prelest, having already been seduced and corrupted by it. Now I am afraid to begin anything by self-will, even such things as I consider edifying. The Holy Fathers say - it is better to do combat with faeces, ie, with fornication and gluttony, than with self-opinionated logical thinking, high mindedness, pride and contempt. For these last passions are subtle, they imperceptibly creep into ones mind, take the form of sound and righteous thoughts, and cannot be detected other than by the light of grace. I stand before the Providence of God with my mind, putting aside at this moment worldly wisdom and its righteousness. God created me without me desiring or asking for it: because how could “nothing” wish for, or even more so - ask for anything? God redeemed me – who was fallen and lost; the cost of this redemption was Himself.
Meanwhile, as although He is the Redeemer, clothed in humility, He is not recognized by carnal minds, despite His obviousness. They are left to wonder at things spiritually akin to themselves, chasing after things foreign to themselves, liable to decay.To me, the wretched one, He has granted to know Himself. When my eyes were closed, clay mixed with spittle coming out of His mouth were healing them. The Cross of Christ opens the eyes of the mind; the Cross of Christ maintains health, heals diseases of the eyes. Separate from the Cross of Christ there is no truth of Christ. Peace and truth will destroy those that are of the devil. I stand before my Lord and I see His Holy Providence, and I wonder at His long-suffering patience, how merciful He is to those sinful errors into which I fell due to my self-will and self-willed logical thinking. I commit my soul into the hands of God; that which He grants me, that I will accept. He knows my strength, because He gave it to me. If I am given one talent corresponding to my strength, I do not search for five, so as not to fail under the weight of them; so that the gift which is meant to serve for benefit, does not serve for condemnation.
I run from my sinful falls - not into reclusion, not into the desert - but to self-reproach, to confession of my sins, to repentance.My bewilderment, my rational judgements and my will, I cast into the depths of the mercy and providence of God.
Such is the spectacle with which my soul confronts me when I look at her with my mind, in the light of the teaching of the Gospel. Now I will turn to the words of reproof found in your letter. The actual nature of the case shows, that you, looking at the externals of my behavior, have noticed far fewer flaws than actually are found in my soul. Conscious of my great debt, I must acknowledge the smaller one, which I concede to even in the case that I would not like to confess. For this it remains for me to tearfully ask your forgiveness and holy prayers for my correction. If, according to the words of Saint Isaac (the Syrian),
justification by word does not belong to Christian life and is not prescribed anywhere in the teaching of Christ.If the Lord Himself, standing before worldly authority, while exalting the Truth of the Cross before the gaze of the universe, did not give any attention to external truth, not one word, like dust and ashes, if He met their accusations with silence, then who, looking at the depths of his heart, and seeing accurately, dare oppose his accuser? Such a person will tell the sword waving at him: strike, because you were not raised in vain. He will say to the disasters: Attack me and dispirit me, because I deserve it. He will say to the body, exhausted by disease and sent into exile: Go, for you have sinned. He will say to his brethren, pray for me the defiled one, you angels of God. He will fall to the feet of adulterers and murderers and say unto them: pray for me, for you are more righteous than me. Such is my state, when the [spiritual] eyes of my mind are open; but when they close, then my condition becomes far worse: for the wounds naturally remain the same; but to the diseases of my heart is added the blindness of my mind.
From blindness is born insensitivity, loss of love for our neighbor, and the loss of compunction and comforting mourning, the amassing wounds to wounds and diseases to diseases.In short - whether I see or am blinded - my condition is extremely disastrous, worthy of the tears and sobs of all who know and love me. Such is my answer to everyone who criticizes, and to you. If I answer otherwise – I sin.
I would have had to be satisfied with this if I were not speaking to my spiritual son, who, while uttering accusations against me as his heart dictates, nevertheless does not claim that they are the absolute truth, but rather, he offers them to me for judgement. Therefore I feel obliged to continue my conversation, and despite the fact that I am feeble, borrowing light from the True Light - the Word of God, I feel obliged to satisfy the demands of your letter. Not so much by paying attention to the specific thoughts contained in this letter, as by uncovering, in the light of the Gospel teachings, those secret motives of the heart of which these ideas are the fruit. According to the Fathers,
those people who require a complete elimination of flaws from their close ones, hold a false notion of this matter.We find this opinion of the Fathers also among the Apostles: one of them (John the Evangelist), says: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 1 John. 1, 8. Another says (St. Paul): “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” Gal. 6, 2. What can give rise to the reproaching of our neighbour’s weakness, is shown in Scriptures in men of the highest virtue. Who is holier than the Apostles? However in the Acts we read that between the Apostles Barnabas and Paul there arose a dissension, and after the dissension - a separation. Beyond doubt we are told of this circumstance by Scripture with the aim that we, infirm as we are,
be careful and not get carried away by imaginary zeal, but carry one another’s burdens. In this way fulfilling the law of Christ! Carry my weaknesses, then; and I will try to bear yours, as I have tried to do hitherto.Obviously it is impossible for you to say that you have no weaknesses.
My weaknesses are heavier more so for you than for me: and yours are perceptible more for me than for you.If the weight was not burdensome, then carrying it would have no value, and there would not be any reason to give this commandment.
But the value of reciprocally bearing weaknesses is so great that Scripture has concluded that in this lies the fulfillment of the law of Christ, Who bore upon Himself the sins of the whole world.I will say a few words about inconstancy. Inconstancy, or changeableness, according to the holy Fathers, is the constant and inevitable weakness of humans, as long as a person is found in this country of his exile, that is, on this earth. Perfect constancy is a property of the future order of things. Variableness is not only characteristic to us who are infirm, as even the greatest Saints acknowledged this in themselves. Tolerate the inconstancy in me, and I will tolerate it in you. My inconstancy is more palpable for you, and yours – for me. Let us bear our mutual weaknesses that we may know that the yoke of Christ is good: if we throw off the yoke of Christ, then which yoke shall we subordinate ourselves to? Excellently the holy Elijah Ekdik said:
“The house of the soul - is patience, for it lives in it; and its food – is humility, for it is fed by this.” Exactly so - thoughts with humility of wisdom keep the soul in patience. If this is so, then this follows: there is nothing that banishes the soul from patience, as much as prideful thoughts.Repeatedly I have told you and many others, to whom I thought to impart soul-profiting knowledge: When I check my disposition and behaviour against the writings of the holy Fathers, I find that I would have to be found among the beginners in ancient monasticism. However in contemporary monasticism, where the knowledge of the Fathers and the way of thinking only somewhat imprinted by such knowledge, is so rare, that one who teaches his listeners the teaching of the Fathers, is a greatest rarity. It is with this condition that I govern you all and have you as my spiritual children, so as to teach all of you the Gospel way of thinking, which is the way of thinking of the Fathers.
Truly, truly, I say to you: these days, when there are no works of the spirit, and spiritual wisdom is an extreme rarity, the devil so hates this wisdom that he would like to destroy it from the face of the earth.In this way the Gospel would remain only for our condemnation, and not edification; for we shall be judged according to the Gospel, as foretold to us by the Lord Jesus Christ (Jn. 42, 40).
The devil is ready to give us ten times the common sense, and multiply our practical skills a thousandfold, if he can only steal from us the knowledge of the Cross, by which we can come to stand at the right hand of God. One who ascribes to himself intelligence and good sense, likens himself to the devil, who wanted to be acknowledged as the source of enlightenment. He actually is the source of imitated light – fleshly wisdom, which does not submit to God’s reason, bears upon itself the stamp of pride and contains in itself the precondition of all sinful falls.
“Have you seen someone who has fallen? Know, that he followed his own will”, says Abba Dorotheus.This holy one said concerning himself; that it would be better for him to sin by external act, following the advice of his neighbor; than to act without a blessing. And I, in my small experience, whenever I fail, I have consolation from the fact that the deed has been done or started not without a blessing.
Therefore, unworthy as I am, it would be befitting to attend to one’s own shortcomings. However
in my responsibilities of Superior and spiritual father, I must tell you what I see with my sinful eyes: your warfare is caused by the passion of pride.The feeling that one possesses practical intelligence and understanding is a justification of pride, in which the pride is hidden. When the feeling towards myself and to those surrounding me grows cold, this are the fruits of pride, because after disparaging ones neighbour there follows a drying up of love. And the disappearance of love is an indication of that demonic thoughts have been accepted, just as the growth of love for one’s neighbour is a sign of accepting the seeds of grace.
The passion of pride acts differently to the passion of fornication, or of anger. These two passions are obvious, and their justification and the cunning in their excuses is clearer to behold. Pride, on the other hand, creeps in imperceptibly. Pride is sown by abilities, splendor, and even more so by the praise of men. Although, it may seem that we do not accept praises and do not agree inwardly with those that praise us, the secret imprint of praise nevertheless remains in the mind and heart, and when we are disparaged - it is burdensome; and the more burdensome it is for us, the more saturated we are with praise. This is how it is proven that the imprint is present, and the secret implantation of pride. Woe to us! The most grace-filled gifts have been the occasion for pride in people, and the fruits of pride – is a fall! The main symptoms of pride are that one’s feeling towards people around one grows cold, and the abandonment of confession. Now we must show the cause of this vice, and give a proper account of the door by which it enters, or rather, goes out, says St John of the Ladder (Step 11:1)
Make it a rule for yourself to confess your thoughts at least twice weekly. Just as the soul conforms to the body, in the same way express your humility by the bowing of the body. Say and repeat to your thought about your brothers: “These are Christ’s sheep, these are angels of God”, and contempt for them will be destroyed, which is of pride.Then, trusting in the mercy of God, peace and love will enter your heart, and by the action of grace it will be shown to you that you are in temptation. Your eyes will be opened and you will get to know your real delusion. This case shall enter into the treasury of your spiritual experiences, and will provide you with protection for the future, and nourishment for the brotherhood. For a man who is not tempted, is not skilled, but “in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18), says Scripture.May the Lord grant that you follow this counsel of Saint John of the Ladder:
“When once we have entered the arena of religion and obedience we must no longer judge our good manager in any way at all, even though we may perhaps see in him some slight failings, since he is only human. Otherwise, by sitting in judgment we shall get no profit from our subjection. It is absolutely indispensable for those of us who wish to retain undoubting faith in our superiors to write their good deeds indelibly in our hearts and constantly remember them, so that when the demons sow among us distrust towards them, we may be able to silence them by what is preserved in our memory. For the more faith flourishes in the heart, the more alacrity the body has in service. But he who has stumbled on distrust has already fallen…” (Step 4:6-7).Likewise, pride often sprouts from exercising spiritual care over those close to us, as a sprout shoots up from a wheat grain. Therefore, Saint Mark the Ascetic, said: “When a man benefits another by word or deed, may the grace of God enlighten the both.” Apostle Paul says: “For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake”. (2 Cor 4:5) For the person who cultivates these feelings, partiality for people will be destroyed, and the love of Christ will reign, seeing God’s image in everyone. Then, when the mind delights in this love, a person sees himself as a vessel filled with stench and filth, and marvels at how the rays of Divine teaching pass through him and heal human souls.
It is proper for me here to recall the words of Saint John of the Ladder, which are repeated also by Saint Nilus of Sora: some were mired in the mud, but cautioned others against similar acts, and for helping others, the Lord gave them salvation. (Step 26:14) Therefore, after such serious wounds,
I learned that the signs of pride in a person are humiliation or contempt of his neighbours, and negligence in confessing. In and of itself pride is not noticeable to a person, as it is a most subtle passion, which even deceived the light-bearing Angel and arranged a fall in Heaven. The other passions are dependent on pride, just as a building is connected to a foundation which is hidden under the earth.Finally I bequeath to you to keep this letter secret until my death. In the meantime, I commend you and myself to the mercy and grace of God, which is able to, if we do not ourselves reject it, to give us salvation, although we are completely unworthy of it. Amen.
November 25, 1842
St. Sergius Hermitage