Objection: Tell me, if a person fasts, practices self-control, keeps vigils, stands, makes prostrations, grieves inwardly and lives in poverty, is this not active asceticism? How then do you advocate simply the singing of psalms, yet say that without ascetic labor it is impossible to succeed in prayer? Do not the activities I mention constitute ascetic labor?
Answer. If you pray with your lips but your mind wanders, how do you benefit? 'When one builds and another tears down, what do they gain but toil?'(Eccles. 34:23). As you labor with your body, so you must labor with your intellect, lest you appear righteous in the body while your heart is filled with every form of injustice and impurity. St Paul confirms this when he says that if he prays with his tongue - that is, with his lips - his spirit or his voice prays, but his intellect is unproductive: 'I will pray with my spirit, and I will also pray with my intellect'(cf. 1Cor. 14:14-15).And he adds, 'I would rather speak five words with my intellect than ten thousand with my tongue'(cf. 1 Cor. 14:19). St John Klimakos,too, indicates that St Paul is speaking here about prayer when he says in his chapter on prayer, 'The great practitioner of sublime and perfect prayer says, "I would rather speak five words with my intellect." 'There are many other forms of spiritual work, yet not one in itself is all-sufficient; but prayer of the heart, according to St John Klimakos, is pre-eminent and all-embracing, the source of the virtues and catalyst of all goodness. 'There is nothing more fearful than the thought of death,'says St Maximos, 'or more wonderful than mindfulnessof God,'indicating the supremacy of this activity. But some do not even wish to know that we can attain a state of active grace in this present life, so blinded and weak in faith are they because of their ignorance and obduracy.
In my opinion, those who do not psalmodize much act rightly, for it means that they esteem moderation - and according to the sages moderation is best in all things. In this way they do not expend all the energy of their soul in ascetic labor, thus making the intellect negligent and slack where prayer is concerned. On the contrary, by devoting but little time to psalmodizing,they can give most of their time to prayer. On the other hand, when the intellect is exhausted by continuous noetic invocation and intense concentration, it can be given some rest by releasing it from the straitnessof silent prayer and allowing it to relax in the amplitude of psalmody. This is an excellent rule, taught by the wisest men.
Those who do not psalmodize at all also act rightly, provided they are well advanced on the spiritual path. Such people have no need to recite psalms; if they have attained the state of illumination, they should cultivate silence, uninterrupted prayer and contemplation. They are united with God and have no need to tear their intellect away from Him and so to throw it into confusion. As StJohn Klimakossays, 'One under monastic obedience falls when he follows his own will, while the hesychastfalls when he is interrupted in his prayer.'For the hesychast commits adultery in his intellect when he sunders it from its mindfulnessof God: it is as if he were being unfaithful to his true spouse and philandering with trivial matters.
To impart this discipline to others is not always possible. But it can be taught to simple uneducated people who are under obedience to a spiritual father, for such obedience, thanks to the humility that goes with it, can partake of every virtue. Those, however, who are not under this kind of obedience should not be taught it, regardless of whether they are unlearned people or educated: they may easily be deluded,because people who are a law unto themselves cannot avoid being conceited,and the natural result of conceit is delusion, as St Isaac says. Yet some people, unaware of the harm which will result, counsel anybody they happen to meet to practice this discipline alone, so that their intellect may grow accustomed to being mindful of God and may come to love it. But this is not possible, especially for those not under obedience. For, because of their negligence and arrogance, their intellect isstill impure and has not first been cleansed by tears; and so, instead of concentrating on prayer, they are filled with images of shameful thoughts, while the unclean spirits in their heart, panic-struck by the invocation of the dread name of the Lord Jesus, howl for the destruction of the person who scourges them.
Thus if you hear about or are taught this discipline, and want to practice it, but are not under spiritual direction you will experience one of two things: you will either force yourself to persist, in which case you fall into delusion and will failto attain healing; or you will grow negligent, in which case you will never make any progress during your whole life.
I will add this from my own small experience. When yousit in stillness, by day or by night, free from random thoughts and continuously praying to God in humility, you may find that your intellect becomes exhausted through calling upon God and that your body and heart begin to feelpain because of the intense concentration with which you unceasingly invoke the name of Jesus, with the result that you no longer experience the warmth and joy that engender ardor and patience in the spiritual aspirant. If this is the case, stand up and psalmodize,either by yourself
or with a disciple who lives with you, or occupy yourself with meditation on some scriptural passage or with the remembrance of death, or with manual labor or with some other thing, or give your attention to reading, preferably standing up so as to involve your body in the task as well.
When you stand and psalmodize by yourself, recite the Trisagion and then pray in your soul or your intellect, making your intellect pay attention to your heart; and recite two or three psalms and a few penitential troparia but without chanting them: as St John Klimakos confirms, people at this stage of spiritual development do not chant. For 'the suffering of the heart endured in a spirit of devotion',as St Mark puts it,is sufficient to produce joy in them, and the warmth of the Spirit is given to them as a source ofgrace and exultation. After each psalm again pray in your
intellect or soul, keeping your thoughts from wandering, and repeat the Alleluia. This is the order established by the holy fathers Varsanuphios, Diadochosand others. And as St Basil the Great says, one should vary the psalms daily to enkindle one's fervor and to prevent the intellect from getting bored with having to recite always the same things. The intellect should be given freedom and then its fervor will be quickened.'If you stand and psalmodize with a trusted disciple, let him recite the psalms while you guard yourself, secretly watching your heart and praying. With the help of prayer ignore all images, whether sensory or conceptual, that rise up from the heart.
For stillness means the shedding of all thoughts for a time, even those which are divine and engendered by the Spirit; otherwise through giving them our attention because they are good we will lose what is better.
So, lover of God, attend with care and intelligence. If while engaged in spiritual work you see a light or a fire outside you, or a form supposedly of Christ or of an angel or of someone else, reject it lest you suffer harm. And do not pay court to images, lest you allow them to stamp themselves on your intellect. For all these things that externally and inopportunely assume various guises do so in order to delude your soul. The true beginning of prayer is the warmth of heart that scorifies the passions, fills the soul with joy and delight, and establishes the heart in
unwavering love and unhesitating surety. The holy fathers teach that if the heart is in doubt about whether to accept something either sensory or conceptual that enters the soul, then that thing is not from God but has been sent by the devil. Moreover, if you become aware that your intellect is being enticed by some invisible power either from the outside or from above, do not trust in that power or let your intellect be so enticed, but immediately force it to continue its work.Unceasingly cry out: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy’, and do not allow yourself to retain any concept, object, thought or form that is supposedly divine, or any sequence of argument or any color, but concentrate solely on the pure, simple, formless remembrance of Jesus. Then God,seeing your intellect so strict in guarding itself in every way against the enemy, will Himself bestow pure and unerring vision upon it and will make it participate in God and share in all other blessings.
What is of God, says St Isaac, comes of itself, without you knowing when it will come. Our natural enemy - the demon who operates in the seat of our desiring power - gives the spirit-forces various guises in our imagination. In this way he substitutes his own unruly heat for spiritual warmth, so that the soul is oppressed by this deceit. For spiritual delight he substitutes mindless joy and a muggy sense of pleasure, inducing self-satisfaction and vanity. Thus he tries to conceal himself from those who lack experience and to persuade them to take his delusions for manifestations of spiritual joy. But time, experience and perspicacity will reveal him to those
not entirely ignorant of his wiles. As the palate discriminates between different kinds of food (cf. Eccles.36:18,19), so the spiritual sense of taste clearly and unerringly reveals everything as it truly is.
Continually take careful note of your inner intention: watch carefully which way it inclines, and discover whether it is for God and for the sake of goodness itself and the benefit of your soul that you practice stillness or psalmodizeor read or pray or cultivate some virtue. Otherwise you may unknowingly be ensnared and prove to be an ascetic in outward appearance alone while in your manner of life and inner intention you are wanting to impress men, and not to conform to God. For the devil's traps are many, and he persistently and secretly watches the bias of our intention, without most of us being aware of it, striving imperceptibly to corrupt our labor so that what we do isnot done in accordance with God's will. But even if he attacks and assaults you relentlessly and shamelessly, and even if he distracts the bias of your will and makes it waver in spite of your efforts to prevent it, you will not often be caught out by him so long as you keep yourself steadfastly intent on God. If again in spite of your efforts you are overcome through weakness, you will swiftly be forgiven and praised by Hun who knows our intentions and our hearts. There is, however, one passion - self-esteem - that does not permit a monk to grow in virtue, so that though he engages in ascetic labors in the end he remains barren. For whether you are a beginner, or midway along the spiritual path, or have attained the stage of perfection,
self-esteem always tries to insinuate itself, and it nullifies your efforts to live a holy life, so that you waste your time in listlessness and day-dreaming.
(Taken from Philokalia, St Gregory of Sinai -On Stillness: Fifteen Texts,Different Ways of Psalmodizing)