On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination

St. Tikhon the Patriarch of Moscow and Enlightener of North America

St. Tikhon the Patriarch of Moscow and Enlightener of North America

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

Written for Abba (Father) Leontios

(Saint John Cassian, often styled 'Cassian the Roman' in Greek sources, was born around the year 360 A.D., probably in Roman Scythia. As a young man he joined a monastery in Bethlehem, but around 385-6 A.D. he travelled with his friend Germanos to Egypt, where he remained until 399 A.D. becoming a disciple of Evagrios. During 401-5 A.D. he was at Constantinople, where he was ordained deacon; here he became a disciple and ardent supporter of Saint John Chrysostom. In 405 A.D. he travelled to the West, remaining for some years in Rome and then moving to Gaul. Either in Rome or in Gaul he was ordained a priest. Around 415 A.D. he founded two monasteries near Marseilles, one for men and the other for women. His two main works are the Institutes and the Conferences, both written in Latin around the year 425-8 A.D. In these St. Cassian summarized the spiritual teaching which he had received in Egypt, adapting it to the somewhat different conditions of the West. His writings exercised a formative influence on Latin monasticism and are especially commended in the Rule of Saint Benedict. St. Cassian died around 435 A.D. and is commemorated in the Orthodox Church as a Saint, his feast day falling on 29 February.)

The promise I made to the blessed Bishop Kastor to give an account of the way of life and the teaching of the holy Fathers has been fulfilled in part by the writings I sent him entitled 'On Coenobitic Institutions' and "On the Eight Vices'; and I now propose to fulfill it completely. But having heard that Bishop Kastor has left us to dwell with Christ, I felt I should send the remaining portion of my treatise to you, most holy Leontios, who have inherited both his virtuous qualities and the guardianship, with God's help, of his monastery.

I and my spiritual friend, the holy Germanos, whom I had known since my youth at school, in the army and in monastic life, were staying in the desert of Sketis, the center of the most experienced monks. It was there that we saw Abba (Father) Moses, a saintly man, outstanding not only in the practice of the virtues but in spiritual contemplation as well. We begged him with tears, therefore, to tell us how we might approach perfection.

After much entreaty on our part, he said: 'Children, all virtues and all pursuits have a certain immediate purpose; and those who look to this purpose and adapt themselves accordingly will teach the ultimate goal to which they aspire. The farmer willingly works the earth, enduring now the sun's heat and now the winter's cold, his immediate purpose being to clear it of thorns and weeds, while his ultimate goal is the enjoyment of its fruits. The merchant, ignoring dangers on land and sea, willingly gives himself to his business with the purpose of making a profit, while his goal is enjoyment of this profit. The soldier, too, ignores the dangers of war and the miseries of service abroad. His purpose is to gain a higher rank by using his ability and skill, while his goal is to enjoy the advantage of this rank.

'Now our profession also has its own immediate purpose and its own ultimate goal, for the sake of which we willingly endure all manner of toil and suffering. Because of this, fasts do not cast us down, the hardship of vigils delights us; the reading and study of Holy Scripture are readily undertaken; and physical work, obedience, stripping oneself of everything earthly, and the life here in this desert are carried out with pleasure.

'You have given up your country, your families, everything worldly in order to embrace a life in a foreign land among rude and uncultured people like us. Tell me, what was your purpose and what goal did you set before yourselves in doing all this?'

We replied: 'We did it for the Kingdom of heaven.' In response Abba Moses said: 'As for the goal, you have answered well; but what is the purpose which we set before us and which we pursue unwaveringly so as to reach the Kingdom of heaven? This you have not told me.'

When we confessed that we did not know, the old man (geronda) replied: 'The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the Kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose, however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter's rule.

'The Apostle Paul knew this when he said: "Forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what lies in front, I pursue my purpose, aiming at the prize of the high calling of God" (Phil. 3:13-14). We, too, do everything for the sake of this immediate purpose. We give up country, family, possessions and everything worldly in order to acquire purity of heart. If we forget this purpose we cannot avoid frequently stumbling and losing our way, for we will be walking in the dark and straying from the proper path. This has happened to many men who at the start of their ascetic life gave up all wealth, possessions and everything worldly, but who later flew into a rage over a fork, a needle, a rush or a book. This would not have happened to them had they borne in mind the purpose for which they gave up everything. It is for the love of our neighbor that we scorn wealth, lest by fighting over it and stimulating our disposition to anger, we fall away from love. When we show this disposition to anger towards our brother even in small things, we have lapsed from our purpose and our renunciation of the world is useless. The blessed Apostle was aware of this and said: "Though I give my body to be burned, and have no love, it profits me nothing" (1 Cor. 13:3). From this we learn that perfection does not follow immediately upon renunciation and withdrawal from the world. It comes after the attainment of love which, as the Apostle said, "is not jealous or puffed up, does not grow angry, bears no grudge, is not arrogant, thinks no evil" (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-5). All these things establish purity of heart; and it is for this that we should do everything, scorning possessions, enduring fasts and vigils gladly, engaging in spiritual reading and psalmody. If, however, some necessary task pleasing to God should keep us from our normal fasting and reading, we should not on this account neglect purity of heart. For what we gain by fasting is not so great as the damage done by anger; nor is the profit from reading as great as the harm done when we scorn or grieve a brother.

'Fasts and vigils, the study of Holy Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said: they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting; vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.'

To this Germanos rejoined: 'What man, while in the flesh, can so fix his intellect on God that he thinks of nothing else, not even of visiting the sick, of entertaining guests, of his handicraft, or of the other unavoidable bodily needs? Above all, since God is invisible and incomprehensible, how can a man's mind always look upon Him and be inseparable from Him?'

Abba (Father) Moses replied: 'To look upon God at all times and to be inseparable from Him, in the manner which you envisage, is impossible for a man still in the flesh and enslaved to weakness. In another way, however, it is possible to look upon God, for the manner of contemplating God may be conceived and understood in many ways. God is not only to be known in His Blessed and incomprehensible being, for this is something which is reserved for His Saints in the age to come. He is also to be known form the grandeur and beauty of His creatures, from His Providence which governs the world day by day, from His Righteousness and from the wonders which He shows to His saints in each generation.



The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things!


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George