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The Book of Genesis tells us that man was created in the image of God. It is because of this that man has a natural tendency to seek God, in Whose image he was created.
Man was also created in the likeness of God. That means (among other things) in the likeness of the goodness of God. That means man was created with the tendency to be good, in the likeness of God Himself, the author of goodness. This intrinsic force that drives man to be good is sometimes called “The natural law” (Rom 2:14). When Adam and Eve fell, human nature became fallen. Sin was introduced into the human nature. Sin made significant changes (for the worse) in man’s will and intellect (mind). The will that was created with a God-seeking affinity became corrupted. Sin introduced self-seeking into the will of man. This led into a duality of will, a higher will, still seeking God, and a lower will that seeks after self gratifications.
Sin also corrupted the human mind, introducing “another law of sin” (Rom 7:23) that wars against the natural law of goodness. This led to a frustrating situation that St. Paul describes very well in Romans 7:18-19: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”
When our Lord was incarnate, and took unto Himself the flesh of our weakness, uniting His divinity to our humanity, He elevated the human fallen nature to its original state, the state of the image and likeness of Him. And when He died on the Cross, He put an end to the dominance of sin on human nature. Our Lord gave us a chance to fight back to regain our original nature, by participating in His victory over sin and death through Holy Baptism.
Born again in Baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit which dwells in us, and works in us (and with us) through grace and helps us in the lifelong struggle to restore our nature to the likeness of God once more. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Thus tells us the Lord in Matt 5:48. Having renewed us through Baptism, and sanctified us through the Holy Spirit, the Lord encourages us to seek perfection, even the perfection of our Father which is in heaven. This is the true meaning of regaining our likeness to God, and the ultimate goal of the restoration of our nature; Christian perfection. The reward for this is our return to Paradise, out of which we were driven out when we lost this God-like perfection.
The Bible tells us, in so many words, what we need to do to reach this perfection. When a young man came to our Lord asking Him, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matt 19:16) The Lord answered him, “Keep the commandments ... Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matt 19:17-19) When the man told the Lord that he has already kept all of these, the Lord told him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. (Matt 19:21) By this, the Lord was telling this young man, that the perfection of the Law, or those who think that they are fulfilling the Law (of Moses), like the Pharisees, cannot attain to the Heavenly Kingdom that our Lord has promised those who attain to the true Christian perfection, a level of perfection the young man was unwilling to reach for.
Although the Bible tells us WHAT we need to do to reach perfection (and earn Eternal Life,) it does not tell us HOW to reach perfection. It leaves it up to each one of us. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” is what St Paul tells us in (Phil 2:12) It is quite obvious from this, that “Work” is an essential part of this process of salvation, according to the Bible. But, in this work we are not alone, we have a very strong ally in the grace of God, which works in us and with us through the Holy Spirit which dwells in us. In the early years of the Church, Christians sought to work out their own salvation through offering the ultimate sacrifice; martyrdom. During the first three centuries, ten major persecutions gave millions of Christians their chance to strive for perfection. Shedding one’s blood for the sake of Christ became the ideal of working out one’s own salvation.
When Constantine became emperor and published his edict of toleration of Christianity (313 A.D.),Christians had to find another way of working out their own salvation. Many sought their own salvation in the wilderness. Unable to shed their blood for Christ’s sake, they sought to offer Him their bodies as “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God.” (Rom 12:1) They took their clues from verses like, “And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.”(Gal 5:24) and “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” (1 Cor 9:27) Other verses speak of this road to perfection as an athletic contest, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” (1 Cor 9:24) and, “ let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” (Heb 12:1)
Other verses still speak of this quest for perfection as a war, “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” (Heb 12:4) and, “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.” (2 Tim 2:3-4). Other images of this strife likened it to wrestling with beasts, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Pet 5:8)
But the image that really fired their imagination was the image of a fight with the demons, the princes of darkness, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph 6:12)
Those athletes of Christ went into the wilderness, to wrestle with the demons, in order to attain Christian perfection. Soon enough, monasticism took the place of martyrdom as the ideal of Christian perfection.
In trying to work out their own salvation, those athletes of Christ did the rest of us a great favour. They left us a huge body of writings about how to attain Christian perfection.
The desert of Egypt became a university of this quest for spiritual perfection. The Desert Fathers made a science out of this quest for perfection that we now call spirituality. In this university research was done and experiments conducted, with either success or failure. Results of these experiments, whether they ended in success or failure, were published by many who came to seek the wisdom of the Desert Fathers. The Fathers themselves never wrote their sayings, and spoke to others about their experiences only when they were constrained to do so. The Desert Fathers catalogued the sins, and the factors that predisposed them, and spoke in great detail on how to fight against them. They identified the various virtues, and classified them, giving exact techniques for attaining them.
The amazing thing about the sayings of the Desert Fathers is their agreement. While some lived in the Eastern desert, others in the Western desert (Scetis) and yet others in Upper Egypt, they reached the same conclusions. It is this unanimity of opinion that is most striking about these sayings. The differences are only in technique. The two most important characteristics of the spirituality of the Desert Fathers are as follows:
The first is their insistence on discipleship. Anyone seeking to learn the art of spirituality had to attach himself to a “master.” This was not an easy matter, for those “masters” had very stringent “qualifying exams” for the candidates. St. Pachomius was left begging for three days outside the door of St. Palaemon’s cell before being accepted as an apprentice!Books about these great saints usually say that he “trained with Abba .....”
Of course there were pioneers like St. Paul the Anchorite, St. Anthony the father of Monasticism and St. Macarius the great; men who laid the first foundations of this science, and who became founders of this university for the study of spirituality.
The second important rule was total avoidance of relying on one’s self. The apprentice had to offer complete and blind obedience to the “master” who assumed total responsibility for training the novice. The masters tested the obedience of their disciples in many ways that would seem absurd to us! Like the master who gave his disciple a stick and ordered him to water it! Of course the obedience was not in vain, for after three years, the stick started to bud and bring fruits! Another novice, when he complained that there was a hyena nearby, was told by his master, catch it and bring it to me. In blind faith he went after the hyena and brought it back to the master only to be told, “Take it back, I told you to bring a hyena not a dog!”
Those who followed these rules faithfully, completed their training to become masters in their own right, teaching others what they had learned from their masters. A common thread, through the sayings of the Desert Fathers, is the statements like this, “Abba ... said that the blessed Abba ... used to tell him ....” A disciple propagated the sayings of his master not his own. Later on his disciples will propagate his own sayings and so on.
As fascinating as they are, the sayings of the Desert Fathers are not suitable for everyone. St. Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3:2, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” For beginners to use these sayings is like giving a grownup’s food to a baby.
There are many books written about spirituality, based on the sayings of the Desert Fathers. John Climacus book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” and John Cassian’s two books “The Institutes” and “The Conferences” are examples of such books.
A sixteenth century Russian Orthodox Abbot named Theophan the Recluse made a significant contribution to spirituality by collating many of the sayings of the Desert Fathers under some headings, and adding his own personal comments on how to implement their instructions and imitate their way of life. Again, this is a book written by a monk for monks.
“The Way of the Ascetics” is an exception to the above. It was written by a married Orthodox Christian living in Europe (Finland) in the first half of the twentieth century. It is a wonderful book that applies the methods of the Desert Fathers to ordinary people living in the world. It is a book that I recommend for anyone seeking to work out his or her own salvation.
However, as anyone knows, life in the middle of the twentieth century is so different from life in the twenty first century. The morals are different and the challenges are different. The world is changing for the worse on a daily basis.
We need to borrow the methods and techniques of the Desert Fathers and apply them to the struggles faced by young Orthodox people living in the twenty first century.
This booklet is an attempt in that direction. It is based on sermons I gave to the youth of our church in Kitchener, Ontario, during the Lent of 2001. Most of them were later published in our periodical “Parousia”. I also found out that the audio for these sermons is available on the Internet, no doubt the work of some of our over-zealous youth! A word of caution to our readers: this book is not intended to be a “do it yourself manual” for spirituality. So, before you start to apply what is written, please consult your father in confession. Some of the exercises may not be suitable for you, and only your father in confession can give you the right advise in this regard.
The first step in the pursuit of Christian perfection is to re-align the will and the mind towards returning to the image and likeness of God. Chapters one and two deal with this discipline of the mind and the will. The next three chapters are concerned with the moral discipline; the fight against sins. Sins of the senses, sins of memory and imagination are touched upon, then a chapter is devoted to the presumptuous sins or the “hidden sin.”
The last part of the series deals with some of the essential virtues needed to start on the way of spiritual perfection. May the Lord use this booklet for the glory of His Name.

Father Athanasius Iskander
Feast of the Presentation to the Temple
Mechir 8, 1721
February 15, 2005

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