Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou
Question: Could we say that in the monastery everything happens purely because God is guiding the hearts of the other people?
Answer: Everything will work out for salvation for those who love God (Rom. 8:28), for those who have the desire to repent and weep before Him. If we truly seek to please God, everything we see, hear or think will contribute to fulfil our purpose. For instance, if you have that wondrous energy of weeping, you hear birds singing and it will have such an effect on you that you will start weeping. You look at the books on the shelves and see the title ‘In His Name’, and it will make your heart melt and weep for a long time. Everything you hear, everything you think works for your good because you love God. There is nothing more truthful and more precious before God than spiritual weeping. Man is genuine, even infallible, when he weeps.
Question: Can theology become a state of our soul, if we have not reached passionlessness?
Answer: To a certain extent, yes. If you give yourself to prayer and spiritual weeping before God and your heart becomes like a furnace, then you will utter things of which you will be surprised yourself. You receive a taste of how the word of God is born in the heart, and this is the foundation of true theology. Sometimes there are no tears, but our heart is weeping, and this is also good. Tears are the bread of the monks which ‘fattens’ the soul. The Son of God is a spirit and He was ‘fattened’ (that is, He became palpable) by assuming human nature from the Mother of God. Likewise, man’s soul is ‘fattened’ with grace (that is, he receives a hypostasis that can stand before God) by receiving the anointing of the Holy Spirit through tears. In his sermon on Christmas, Saint Gregory the Theologian says that, although He was a spirit, the Word of God was ‘fattened’ by becoming human, tangible, material, visible. Man is material, but he also becomes spiritual when he receives the anointing of the Spirit: he is ‘fattened’ with grace. This ‘fattening’ of the soul is given mostly through the activity of spiritual mourning, which forms the image of Christ in the heart (see Gal. 4:19). It is what we call building up a spiritual state in the heart.
Sometimes we shed a few drops and the heart changes. A few drops and there is a scratch, a wound in the heart that attracts the mind therein and the prayer becomes effortless. The monk who is given over to spiritual mourning is fattened with grace, because the only time we have a naturally religious state and live according to the commandments of Christ is when we pray with tears. When we weep, we turn to God with one thought and in that one thought all our being is concentrated. Weeping is one way to receive healing, because it gathers all the mind, all the faculties of the soul, and the senses in the heart. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the hesychasts interpreted the expression ‘when he came to himself’ (Luke 15:17), as the moment when the heart is wounded by the thought of repentance. Saint Gregory Palamas says that man’s whole being becomes concentrated in the heart, not only his mind and his senses, but even his body, so that the heart becomes ‘the very body of the body’. It is incredible, you have one humble thought from your self-condemnation, or by the action of the Spirit, or by remembering a verse from the Scripture, and you begin to weep. And after a few drops you realise you have a wound in the heart, the heart becomes different. The effect that tears have on the heart is amazing. If you weep for a long time the heart becomes very sensitive, light and luminous. Then you can pray properly, even mentally.
There is nothing that makes the heart surface like spiritual weeping and shame in confession, when we reveal our nakedness and spiritual poverty. This shame in confession and tears have the same effect, they both unearth the heart and they both become strength. The practice of obedience is always a guard of protection and it also leads to the same result. I think God has put us in a line of tradition and there is nothing else under heaven higher than the science that we are trying to learn in a practical way: cutting our will, obeying, seeking for the grace of God, seeking for tears with great desire. All these are the most precious things and if man truly seeks for them to the end, he will become wise and great in the sight of God.
Through obedience we refine our heart to be governed by the Spirit and the Spirit of the Lord is the Spirit of love Who desires all to be saved. I have noticed that when monks are obedient, they naturally become centers of life, for the grace of God loves to inhabit them. They become rich in prayer, wise in all things and a great consolation to all. They excel in everything. To the mind of man, obedience, to become like a beast (Ps. 73:22-23) is absurd. It is as if one has no freedom or personality. Yet on the contrary, you discover your person, your hypostasis, when you put all the precious things that you have at the feet of Christ, for He is then well-pleased to give you His own wisdom, His own power. Wisdom in the monastic life is to divest ourselves from human wisdom, to make ourselves foolish for His sake, and then we become truly wise.
The Swiftness of the Spirit
All those born in the Spirit have the swiftness of the Holy Spirit. As the Lord said to Nicodemus, they resemble the wind: ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth’ (John 3:8). You cannot control such a man, his mind is like lightning. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes as a violent mighty wind and those who are led by the Holy Spirit are not indolent: their mind works like lightning and even their body moves with great ease, because the Spirit lifts the normal burden of the body. For this reason, the saints feel light even in their body. You remember that story of the monk who went to Alexandria to sell his handiwork and when he was attacked by a temptation, he immediately invoked the prayers of his Elder and he found himself in front of the skete. It seems that the grace he received was so enormous that it took the weight of his body and his mind was immersed in his heart. Father Sophrony also got lost in Paris because he was immersed in prayer. It is because he had had such an experience himself that he immediately had the key to the experience of this monk in Alexandria and he was able to explain it to me. He told me that it was not an angel nor a cloud that brought him to the skete: those who have pure prayer do not know if they are in the body or outside the body. There is a perfection of life that makes man like an angel and makes him move like an angel.
Question: Is this swiftness accompanied by precision (ἀκρίβεια) in the thoughts, words and movements we have?
Answer: Yes. Saint Silouan says that the perfect do not speak of themselves, as humans, but they speak whatever the Holy Spirit gives them to say. Therefore, he who is perfect will speak in a perfect way, for he will discern the true teaching perfectly. The perfect will be truly prophetic, that is, he will utter words of eternal truth and value. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon says that those who are true bearers of Tradition have their rule of truth: they express theology and it becomes an infallible pattern of truth. Many saints of the last century hardly went to school, yet they speak with great knowledge and such depth. Look at the Startsi: Saint Silouan was almost illiterate, Staretz Joseph even more, yet they had such wisdom and accuracy when they were theologising, without deviating from the golden rule of Tradition, from the golden rule of truth. The Fathers considered the ascetical life in the desert and obedience as their true university.
Now there is no more desert. Yet, we must remember how Saint Symeon the New Theologian lived a hesychastic life in the middle of Constantinople and how Saint John of Kronstadt kept unceasing prayer in the middle of the crowds. The people of God always find a solution, wherever they are. Saint Sophrony said that the commandments of God have an absolute character. They are valid and can bring their fruit of holiness in any circumstances. We cannot justify ourselves saying that ‘I cannot make any progress because of the conditions in which I live.’ The saints continuously work on their heart and begin to conceive God and every reality in this world with their heart. Once the heart is ignited with this treasure, with this godly divine passion, words come easily to ‘clothe’ that life that burns within them. If man has that energy, that life, he will find the words to express it even if he is illiterate. Saint Silouan had such an inner life and he found the words to speak with great simplicity of the most perfect spiritual teaching. Sometimes he speaks in an ingenious but very simple way about truths that no erudite theologian would be able to express.