Archimandrite Peter, Abbot of Monastery of St John the Baptist, Essex UK
The Lord Jesus said that the Holy Spirit reproves the world ‘of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment’, and this is not a reproving unto perdition, but unto life. If the Spirit of God is ‘in all places and filleth all things’, as we say in the prayers of the Church, then why do we not feel Him? Because our hearts are covered with many layers of rust, of sin, and the earthquake of the reproving of the Spirit is necessary if we are to shake them off. Only then will we experience the Spirit as truly ‘present in all places and filling all things’.
Psychologically, however, we do not want this reproof and we react against it, because we find comfort in our own self-love and fallenness. We are more comfortable wallowing in the idleness of our passions than standing in the judgment of God. Whereas the man enlightened by the grace of God loves His judgment and seeks it from this life.
So, firstly, the Holy Spirit reproves of sin; unless God enlightens man, he cannot truly see the sin lurking in his heart. Then an earthquake takes place within him, and he begins to see that his works are nothing but the seed of future hell.
Secondly, the Spirit reproves of righteousness, that is, He reveals the righteousness of God which consists in the love for enemies that Christ showed on the Cross with the words, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’
Thirdly, the Spirit reproves of judgment, because when a man accepts the judgment that the Spirit works in him, he becomes a judge that cannot be bribed, the worst persecutor of his own self, at the same time ascribing all glory and righteousness to God.The word given by God to Saint Silouan, ‘Keep thy mind in hell and despair not,’ perfectly illustrates this threefold reproof of the Holy Spirit. Man is reproved ‘of sin’, which is why he condemns himself as a son of hell. Man is also reproved ‘of righteousness’, because the Spirit reproves us in our despair, by bringing before us the righteousness of Christ. Who can despair before the spotless Lamb, Who, dying on the Cross, utters the words, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’? Despair, the root of which is self-love, is therefore reproved by the searchless righteousness of the Son of God.
There is also a reproof ‘of judgment’, because by KEEPING his mind in hell, man is ALWAYS bearing in his soul the reproof of judgment wrought by the Spirit of God. Then, the word ‘Κeep thy mind in hell and despair not’ becomes, as Father Sophrony says, a fiery sword, with which man repels every assault of the enemy. In this way, ‘the prince of this world is judged.’
The threefold reproof of the Holy Spirit is also manifest in the word Saint Sophrony said to a fellow ascetic: ‘Stand at the edge of the pit of despair, that is, bear this reproof without falling in despair, and if you see that your strength begins to fail, draw back and have a cup of tea.’ The Elder knew that as long as we bear this reproof of the Holy Spirit, we become children of light, children of Pentecost.
The mystery of Pentecost is at work in all the sacraments of the Church, including spiritual fatherhood. The spiritual father does not need power which crushes with the authority of the epitrachelion he wears; what he needs is the authority of love. And in the sacrament of confession, we see many times people coming with this earthquake and contrition in their hearts, and they come out full of joy and peace. Even their faces change; they come in with a fierce, gloomy face, but after a contrite and humble confession, they come out radiant.
Father Zacharias says in his book, ‘Thirst for Life Eternal’, that there are gifts of the Holy Spirit such as humility, spiritual poverty, intercession for the salvation of the world, which are protected from harm because they are invisible, whereas the visible, manifest gifts involve danger. That is why Saint John Climacus says that the gift of tears is like a knife that God gives us so that we may cleanse our hearts and slay our passions. Yet if we use it for vainglory, that is, for boasting that we have tears, it is as if we turn this knife against ourselves. Unseen treasures are hard to plunder, says the Saint somewhere else.
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Question: Can we ever be aware that we can see when God opens our eyes, or must we always consider ourselves blind?
Archimandrite Peter: This is the paradox of the grace of God. The more man is enlightened, the more he intensifies his repentance, because the more clearly he sees the distance that separates him from God. Abba Ammonas says of the Prophet Elijah that, during his ascent to heaven, he saw the grace of God in the first heaven as light. But when he passed to the second heaven, he felt the light of the first heaven as darkness, and when he arrived at the third heaven, he felt the light of the second heaven as darkness.
This description of man’s ascent to God shows that the more the spiritual man is enlightened by God, the more he perceives his own blindness in comparison to the light of God. Before his death, Abba Poemen prayed to God to let him live a little longer so that he could repent more deeply.
To his disciples, who wondered why he needed more time to repent since he had lived a whole life of strict asceticism in the desert, the Saint said: ‘Be sure, children, that where Satan is, there shall I be, also.’ He was saying this because at that moment he was comparing himself with the beauty of the Countenance of Christ that he beheld.
We are always darkness compared to Him. It is with this awareness that bearers of the Spirit live, ’of whom the world is not worthy’, but because of whom the world exists. Their minds are filled not with the wisdom of the children of this age, but with that wisdom which uses all things in order to gain eternal goods.
Question: How can we keep our mind in hell?
Archimandrite Peter: Saint Silouan received the grace of the perfect from the first months of his monastic life and he was given this word because he was strong enough to bear it. We have to measure our strength, of course, but we all need this earthquake. If our nature does not go now through the reproving of the Holy Spirit, so that we may shake off the scales of sin, we shall have to suffer it eternally, but then it will be ‘a worm that dieth not, and fire that is not quenched’. If, however, we judge ourselves now, we shall not be judged in the last day.
How do we keep our mind in hell? We are all assaulted by sin and we all have a common purpose that unites us: ‘Vouchsafe us, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.’ If we see our fellows in the light of this word and know that no man wants to sin but is engaged in the struggle, then we forgive all things; we will not even notice many disagreements and temptations of daily life. We are commanded by the Church to pray every day, ‘O Heavenly King, come and abide in us.’ So, we are not proud when we ask for the Holy Spirit to come and abide in us; we simply fulfil a commandment. Yet, in order for Him to come, we must not sin, we must not grieve Him.
There will come times when, not seeing clearly what is in his heart and not discerning that the cause of his suffering is selfishness and pride, man reaches a dead end, an impasse; he is tormented by passions, thoughts, people, demons, in such a manner that he can find no way out of the fire that consumes his life and threatens him with eternal hell.
Then, the way traced by the tradition of our Fathers in order to break free from this impasse, is to voluntarily go downwards, to reproach ourselves and present to God in prayer that which we are living: ‘Lord, I see now why my heart is under the dominion of sin; why I do not deserve to see Thy Countenance, neither now nor in the life to come. I see now that I am worthy of eternal damnation. I have the evidence in my own heart, these temptations that are tormenting me.’
Thus, we transform the impasse into prayer, but not as a confession of despair that separates us from God, because that is perdition. The enemy is a spirit of arrogance that cannot go down, and he tempts us with haughty thoughts that are meant to lift us high. But if we voluntarily go downwards, then the heart is freed from temptation.
There is a second way to achieve this. A saint said that Christ did not ascend on the Cross only on account of the righteous judgment of the Father. Human ingratitude fenced the way of communion between God and man in Paradise, and therefore it also led Christ to the Cross, so that He could open anew the way of communion with Him. Consequently, IF OUR INGRATITUDE LIFTED CHRIST ONTO THE CROSS, SURELY THE THANKSGIVING OF THE CHILDREN OF THE CHURCH BRINGS HIS HOLY SPIRIT DOWN TO THE EARTH OF OUR HEARTS.
So, another way of understanding ‘Keep thy mind in hell’, is to make it a permanent practice, an ascetic method of our life, to give thanks to God for all things, even for the misfortunes that happen to us, perhaps especially for these, because there is deep humility in thanksgiving.
Question: Can we avoid hardships if we think optimistically and hopefully and do not allow in pessimistic thoughts?
Archimandrite Peter: We must know that this is a psychological approach; we cannot deal psychologically with the devil, who is a spirit. A monk told me that when he was a student he decided, when he lay down to sleep at night, to call to mind pleasant thoughts so that he could have a peaceful sleep. But by opening his mind to imagination and pleasant thoughts, he noticed that he could no longer pray.
Moreover, in ascetic terminology we call ‘thoughts’ the demons, because behind every evil thought there is an evil spirit. We cannot defeat such thoughts with optimism; we need the fire of God to enter into our hearts, and this is especially accomplished through the prayer of repentance and tears. This fire, which is grace, burns the thoughts and they can no longer approach. And if the thought of the enemy persists, we kneel down and say: ‘Lord, I thank Thee for the life Thou hast given me and for all Thy gifts. Now that death is threatening my soul, come and help me and deliver me from this thought that I feel is from the devil.’ We humble ourselves a little and the heart is moved to compunction, wounded by prayer, and the evil thought departs from us.
Pentecost approaches. If we are not worthy to know the Holy Spirit and have Him overshadow us as a tongue of fire, at least let us ask God to mystically warm our hearts and enlighten our minds, as He warmed the hearts of Luke and Cleopas, whom Christ called ‘fools and slow of heart’. To ask for the Holy Spirit is not pride, but the fulfilment of a commandment. God Himself tells us through the apostle, ‘Brethren, be ye filled with the Holy Ghost.’
Our physical birth in this world is not sufficient. Christ said, ‘Ye must be born again from above.’ Only then will we fulfil our destiny. As long as the infant is in its mother’s womb, says a saint, it is alive, its heart beats, it is fed by what the mother nourishes herself with, but its life is dependent on her. Only when the child is born into the world does it have full, true life. In the same way, the years we live on earth are like the time we spend in our mother’s womb. True life will be there, in Heaven, but we must be born from above from now, so that from now we can breathe the air of the true life of the Kingdom of God.
In order to be born from on high, we must taste the presence of the Comforter in us already from this life, having first undergone the earthquake of repentance. Saint Philaret says that if we content ourselves with the illusion that we are Christians because we live with worldly morality, it is like embellishing our tomb on the outside, when inside it is full of dead bones. And if we are indeed like dead bones, then we should remember God’s word to the Prophet Ezekiel: ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.’
 John 16:8-11.
 Heb. 11:38.
 Cf. Mark 9:48.
 1 Cor. 11:31.
 Luke 24:25.
 Cf. Eph. 5:18.
 Cf. John 3:7.
 Ezek. 37:5-6.