Saint Makarij of Optina
You write that although you read spiritual books, you’re overcome with despair. You force yourself to fast, to be vigilant, to pray and you don’t know why you’re doing all this. You know that you should be doing it for the love of God, but you don’t feel this love within you. One wicked thought leaves you and another takes its place. The passions cascade from your heart one after another and you’re seeking my advice concerning this perplexing situation, hoping in the Lord, who is able to save you with his power…
Reading Patristic books is beneficial and necessary if you’re to know God’s will. The Fathers observed the word of God as this was handed down to us in the scriptures. They experienced the truth and have given us the best of examples through their life and teaching.
If you read only scripture and don’t read the Fathers you won’t learn how they lived and how they engaged in spiritual warfare. You’ll think you can manage by yourself and won’t be brought low.
When you read the texts of the holy Fathers, you have to try to apply what they tell you. If you don’t reach their standards, you have to confess your weakness and humble yourself, in order to be allowed to receive God’s mercy, which is poured out in abundance on the humble.
In the Book of the Elders, we read the following: One of the brethren asked the elder: ‘What should I do when I read the texts of the holy Fathers and don’t do what they say?’.
‘If you read the words of the holy Fathers and don’t implement them’, replied the elder, ‘humble yourself and God will have mercy on you. But if you don’t read them, you won’t humble yourself and God won’t have mercy on you either’. That’s how it is. Reading instructive books with practical advice is of great benefit.
You say that you practice bodily virtues and you don’t know why you’re doing it. That isn’t true. You practice these virtues out of your love for God. It may be that your actions are incomplete, but within you you’ve got even a tiny seed of love for God, which faith has placed there.
If we read the word of God and the Lives of the saints, who conquered their passions and acquired love of God, then let’s force ourselves first of all to do good works and to show our neighbors our love through our actions. When we do this properly then we’ll begin to contemplate God, our soul will find consolation and will attain true love of God… Our life is a spiritual battle and we are warriors, fighting against the spirits of wickedness in the heavenly realms [Eph. 6 12]*. We need to have a weapon against them, and that weapon is humility, with which we can readily oppose them. This is what we should be most concerned about in all our labors and deeds. Love itself is inseparable from humility.
*It’s fortunate that we have this quotation from Saint Paul in Greek, because the word used by Saint Makarij in Russian, ‘podnebesnyj’ means either ‘heavenly’ or ‘earthly’, depending on the context! [WJL]