Keep Thy Mind in Hell, and Despair Not

Venerable Sisoes the Great

Venerable Sisoes the Great

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


By Saint Silouan the Athonite

This particular teaching of Saint Silouan the Athonite on seeing oneself as the worst of all sinners leads into what is perhaps the most important and best-known aspect of his teaching on humility. 'Keep Thy Mind In Hell, And Despair Not'. The fact that this phrase is linked directly to the context of humility is made clear by Saint Silouan himself. He explains how this teaching arose from his own intense striving for this virtue, "Lord shew me what I must think on that my soul may be humbled'. And in my soul came the answer: 'Keep thy mind in Hell, and despair not.' Elder (Geronda) Sophrony acknowledges that this phrase stems directly from Saint Silouan's struggle to acquire humility.

Saint Silouan tells us the sequence of events that led to the occasion when these words were first given to him. One night when he was in his cell (κελλίον) suddenly many demons surrounded him, and he could not even prostrate himself in prayer before his icons. He did not want to give the impression that he was bowing down before a demon. Saint Silouan then besought the Lord, "Tell me what I must do to make them leave me'. And in my soul came the Lord's reply: 'The proud always suffer thus from devils'. To this Saint Silouan asked, as was just mentioned, 'how may I become humble?' This then is the exact occasion of Saint Silouan's own personal experience in prayer when he received those precious words, 'Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not'.

That this teaching was given to him by the Lord Himself is obviously important to Saint Silouan, for he emphasizes this point often. Interestingly, somewhat similar words are also found in the Philokalia, "Keep hell's torments in mind; but know that your helper is at hand." Thus, it is not enough simply to abase oneself or consider oneself as the worst of all sinners. To truly attain to the heights of humility, one must also constantly condemn oneself to hell.

Self-condemnation is of vital importance for spiritual life. Saint Neilos the Ascetic refers to self-condemnation as 'the beginning of salvation.' This theme is also found in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers to which Saint Silouan directly refers to: "Pimen the Great said to his disciples, 'Be sure, my children, that where Satan is, there shall I be also.' The cobbler of Alexandria used to think to himself, 'Everyone will be saved. I alone shall perish', and the Lord revealed to St. Anthony the Great that he did not measure up to that cobbler."

Saint Silouan provides glimpses of his own personal experience of self-condemnation. His genuine sense of compunction and unworthiness before God is striking. By keeping his mind in Hell, he continually condemned himself. "Soon I shall die, and my accursed soul will descend into the blackness of hell. I shall languish alone in the somber flames, weeping for my Lord." He also exhorts his reader to follow this same technique in the pursuit of humility: "But do not think about seeing God rather, humble yourself and let your thought be that at your death you will be cast into a dark prison and there languish and pine for the Lord."

It is ironic to think that dwelling on one's condemnation and on the torments of Hell--which to most would be a negative experience--is actually, according to Saint Silouan, a source of great spiritual profit. He sees such a way of life as not only inspired by the Holy Spirit but also as procuring His grace. He also sees self-condemnation as an invincible defense in spiritual warfare by which the enemy (Satan) is unable to approach the believer. Among the other benefits of "keeping one's mind in Hell' through constant self-condemnation are that it acts as a repellent against intrusive thoughts and serves as a source of both tears of repentance as well as of the joy that accompanies them. (Source: Orthodox Spiritual Life by Harry Boosalis)



"God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or anyone else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves" (St. John Chrysostom)


"A certain monk told me that when he was very sick, his mother said to his father, 'How our little boy is suffering. I would gladly give myself to be cut up into pieces if that would ease his suffering." Such is the love of God for people. He pitied people so much that He wanted to suffer for them, like their own mother, and even more. But no one can understand this great love without the grace of the Holy Spirit" (St. Silouan the Athonite).


"The Lord loves all people, but He loves those who seek Him even more. To His chosen ones the Lord gives such great grace that for they forsake the whole earth, the whole world, and their souls burn with the desire that all people might be saved and see the glory of the Lord" (St. Silouan the Athonite)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--St. John Chrysostom


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

+Father George