“On Enduring Temptation Calmly and Thankfully”

A Discourse of St. Dorotheos of Gaza

St. Dorotheos of Gaza

Abba Poemen used to say very accurately that the signs of a true monk make their appearance in time of temptation. 1 For a monk, truly setting out to serve Our Lord, must be wise enough to prepare his soul for temptations, 2 lest he at any time become estranged [from the Lord] or be overwhelmed by what comes upon him. And he must believe that nothing happens apart from God’s providence. In God’s providence everything is absolutely right and whatever happens is for the assistance of the soul. For whatever God does with us, He does out of His love and consideration for us because it is adapted to our needs. And we ought, as the Apostle says, in all things to give thanks for His goodness to us, 3 and never to get heated up or become weak-willed about what happens to us, but to accept calmly with lowliness of mind and hope in God whatever comes upon us, firmly convinced, as I said, that whatever God does to us, He does always out of goodness because He loves us, and what he does is always right. Nothing else could be right for us but the way in which He mercifully deals with us.

If a man has a friend and he is absolutely certain that his friend loves him, and if that friend does something to cause him suffering and be troublesome to him, he will be convinced that his friend acts out of love and he will never believe that his friend does it to harm him. How much more ought we to be convinced about God Who created us, Who drew us out of nothingness to existence and life, and Who became a man for our sakes and died for us, and Who does everything out of love for us?

It is conceivable that a friend may do something because he loves me and is concerned about me which, in spite of his good intentions, does me harm; this is likely to happen because he does not have complete knowledge and understanding of what my needs and destiny are. But we cannot say the same about God, for He is the fountain of wisdom and He knows everything that is to my advantage, and with this in view He arranges everything that concerns me without counting the cost. Again, about the friend who loves me and is concerned about me and conscientiously looks after my welfare: it can certainly happen in certain circumstances that he thinks I need help and yet he is powerless to help me. Even this we cannot say about God. For to Him all things are possible; with God nothing is impossible. God, we know, loves and takes care of what He has fashioned. He is the fountain of wisdom and He knows what to do to promote our welfare and nothing is beyond His power. Hence we must be convinced that all He does, He does for our benefit and we ought to receive it with gratitude, as we said before, as coming from a beneficent and loving Master - and this even if some things are distressing, for all things happen by God’s just judgment and He Who is merciful does not overlook what is wrong nor does he give life to our tribulations. Often a man in doubt about this will say, ‘What if a man in difficult circumstances does something sinful because of the affliction he is suffering? How can he be sure that the affliction happens to him for his own good?’

God does not allow us to be burdened with anything beyond our power of endurance, and therefore, when difficulties come upon us we do not sin unless we are unwilling to endure a little tribulation or to suffer anything unforeseen. As the Apostle says, ‘God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able [to endure].’4 But we are men who have no patience and no desire for a little labor and [no desire] to brace ourselves to accept anything with humility. Therefore we are crushed [by our difficulties]. The more we run away from temptations, the more they weigh us down and the less are we able to drive them away. Suppose a man for some reason dives into the sea: if he knows the art of swimming, what does he do when a great wave comes along? He ducks under until it goes past and then he goes on swimming unharmed. But if he is determined to set himself against it, it pushes him away and hurls him back a great distance, and when again he begins to swim forward another wave comes upon him, and if again he tries to swim against it, again it forces him back, and he only tires himself out and makes no headway. But if he ducks his head and lowers himself under the wave, as I said, no harm comes to him and he continues to swim as long as he likes. Those who go on doing their work this way when they are in trouble, putting up with their temptations with patience and humility, come through unharmed. But if they get distressed and downcast, seeking the reasons for everything, tormenting themselves and being annoyed with themselves instead of helping themselves, they do themselves harm.

If painful experiences crowd in upon us, we ought not to be disturbed; allowing ourselves to be disturbed by these experiences is sheer ignorance and pride because we are not recognizing our own condition and, as the Fathers tell us, we are running away from labor. We make no progress because we have not squarely taken our own measure, we do not persevere in the work we begin, and want to acquire virtue without effort.5 Why should an emotional man find it strange to be disturbed by his emotions? Why should he be overwhelmed if he sometimes gives way to them? If you have them inside yourself why are you disturbed when they break out? You have their seeds in you and yet you ask, why do they spring up and trouble me? Better to have patience and go on struggling with them and beg for God’s help. It is impossible for someone struggling against his evil desires not to suffer affliction from them. The agents of the passions, as Abba Sisoes says, are inside you; pay them a deposit and they bring you under their power. By ‘agents’ [of passions or vices] he means their causes. 7 In so far as we are attached to these and seek fulfilment in them we cannot escape being led captive by evil thoughts, while we are led forcefully against our intention to fulfil them because we have already willingly delivered ourselves into their hands. This is what the prophet says about Ephraim, who “overpowered his adversary”,-that is his own conscience-and “trampled underfoot [right] judgment”: 8 that he went in search of Egypt and was taken by force by the Assyrians. 9 By ‘Egypt’ the Fathers understand the bodily inclination to be at rest, which teaches us to set our minds on pleasure and soft living. By ‘Assyrians’ they understand passionate engrossing thoughts which trouble and confuse the mind and fill it with unclean images and carry the unwilling mind forcefully towards sinful acts.

If, therefore a man willingly gives himself up to bodily pleasures, he will of necessity be led unwillingly by the Assyrians and forced to serve Nebuchadnezzar. Knowing this, the prophet was troubled and kept saying to them, “Do not go down to Egypt.”10 What are you doing, miserable wretches? Humble yourselves, bow your shoulders and work for yourselves under the King of Babylon and go on occupying the land of your fathers. And again he encouraged them saying, “Do not be afraid before his face, for we have God with us, to deliver us out of his hands.”11 Then he prophesied all the affliction that would come upon them if they disobeyed God. For, he said, “if you go to Egypt you shall be in a wilderness at the mercy of everyone for abuse and cursing.”But they replied, “We do not want to occupy this land, but we want to go down to Egypt, where we shall not see any more war, or hear the sound of the trumpet and we shall not hunger for bread.”12 And they went down and willingly became Pharaoh’s slaves; soon they were taken by force by the Assyrians and made their unwilling slaves. Fix your attention on what has been said. Before a mar gives way to his passions, even if his thoughts mount at assault against him, he is always a free man in his own city and he has God as an ally. If, therefore, he humbles himself before God and bears the yoke of his trial and affliction with thanksgiving, and puts up a little fight, the help of God will deliver him. But if he flees labor and goes after bodily pleasures, then he is necessarily led into the land of the Egyptians and without wishing it becomes their slave. Then the Prophet says [to those people]: “Pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar because his life is your salvation.”13 [Someone praying for the life of] Nebuchadnezzar stands for someone who does not underrate the value of the affliction that comes to him from temptation, or kick against it, but bears it humbly as something due to him; someone who holds that he is unworthy to be freed from that burden, yes, that his trial should be prolonged and made more severe; someone who, whether or not he understands that the cause is in himself or in his present circumstances, believes that nothing from God is indiscriminate or unjust. Such was the brother who mourned and wept when God removed his temptation and cried, “Lord, am I unworthy to endure a little affliction?”14 And again there is the account of the disciple of one of the great old monks who was severely attacked by the spirit of fornication, and the master seeing this said to him, “Do you want me to beg God to lighten this attack?”But the disciple said, “Even if I am hard-pressed, I see that there is great fruit coming to me from this labor. Rather ask this of God that He give me endurance.”15

You see then how strenuous are those who really want to be saved! This is what it means to bear the yoke with humility and to “pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar”.16 The same thing is implied in saying, “I see great fruit coming to me from this labor”as “in the life of Nebuchadnezzar is our salvation”. This the Elder made clear by saying, “Today know that you are in the way to making progress and you will outstrip me.”For when someone struggles manfully against committing sin and begins to fight against the thoughts that attack his mind, he humbles himself and endures a buffeting and yet struggles on - and on this account he is soon cleansed and returns to what is in accord with his nature. 17

Whereas, as we were saying, from his ignorance and pride a man is overcome when he is beset by his unruly passions, he ought after the humiliation [of falling] all the more correctly to take his own measure and to continue praying until God pours out his mercy upon him. For unless a man is tempted and sees the troubles which uncontrolled passions cause him, he will not at any time fight to be cleansed of them. About this the Psalm says, “As soon as sinners spring up like grass and workers of iniquity appear, they will be thoroughly destroyed for ever and ever.”18 ‘Sinners springing up like grass’ refers to passionate desires, for grass is a feeble thing and has no strength. When passionate thoughts arise in the soul therefore, they are brought to light; this means that “the workers of iniquity”, viz. the inordinate passions, appear, in order that they can be completely destroyed for ever and ever. For whenever passionate desires reappear in the mind of those who put up a fight, they are utterly and immediately rejected.

Consider now the consequences of this saying. First passionate desires arise in the mind, and then the underlying passion comes to light and they are destroyed. All this applies to contestants [for the heavenly crown]. But we who give way to the sins and are always satisfying our passions, never recognize the passionate desires that spring up, or the underlying passions they reveal, so that we can combat them, but we remain under their sway, in Egypt, in the pitiful brickfields of Pharaoh. And who will give us the clear realization of our bitter slavery so that we may be truly humbled and eager to obtain mercy? When the sons of Israel were in Egypt and enslaved to Pharaoh, they made bricks, and those who made bricks were always underdogs, they were scorched by the furnaces and bent down to the ground [by the burden they had to carry]. So it is with the soul if it is dominated by the devil and goes on acting sinfully; the devil tramples down the soul’s good intentions and causes it to understand nothing spiritual, but makes its thoughts and activity revolve about earthly things. Then the Israelites built for Pharaoh from the bricks they made three strongly fortified cities, Pithom, Rameses, and On, which is Heliopolis [the city of the sun].19 These represent luxury, avarice and vainglory; from these all sin is derived. When God raised up Moses to lead them out of Egypt and deliver them from slavery to Pharaoh, they were burdened with even greater labors by the king, and he said to them, “You are worthless and lazy and therefore you say, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to the Lord, our God’.”20 In like manner, when he knows that God intends to have mercy on a soul and relieve it of the burden of its evil passions either by his word or through one of his servants, the devil aggravates them all the more and attacks it all more vehemently.

The Fathers, knowing this, strengthened mankind with their teaching and do not allow us to be a prey to anxiety. One of them said, “Have you fallen? Rise up; and if [it happens] again and again and again, do the same.”21 And another said, “The strength of those who really want to acquire virtue is this: even if they fall they don’t get discouraged and give up, but go on, thinking only of starting again.”22 Each of the Fathers quite simply, each in his own special way, holds out a hand to help those who are in combat with the enemy and are being attacked by him. For they take as applying to themselves the words of Holy Scripture, “Shall not the fallen rise again?”or, “Shall not one who has turned away from me turn back again?”23 “Turn to me again, my children, and I shall heal you from your wounds,”says the Lord! 24 And many other [sayings]like it. When the hand of the Lord was heavy on Pharaoh and his attendants, they were willing to send away the sons of Israel, and He said to Moses, “Go and sacrifice to the Lord your God, but leave your sheep and oxen behind,”25 by which are signified to us the thoughts of our minds of which Pharaoh wanted to be master, hoping through them to draw back to his service the sons of Israel. But to this Moses replied, “By no means, but you should also give us victims and holocausts which we may offer to the Lord; our cattle shall also set out with us and we shall not leave one hoof behind.”26 When Moses did succeed in leading the sons of Israel out of Egypt, he took them across the Red Sea. Although God wanted to lead them to the seventy palm trees and the twelve fountains of water, he led them first to Marah, and the people were in distress since they found nothing to drink as the water was bitter; 27 and from Marah he brought them to the seventy palm trees and the twelve fountains of water. So too the soul, when it stops committing sins and passes by the spiritual [Red] Sea, must first fight laboriously and be much afflicted; then it comes out of affliction into a state of holy rest. “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of Heaven”, say the Apostles. 28 For tribulations set the mercy of God in motion towards the soul, as the winds bring down the rain. But too much rain coming down on delicate young plants makes them rot and destroys their fruit, a modest amount of wind dries them out and stiffens them-so it is with the soul. Relaxation, freedom from care, and repose make it flabby, but temptations put it on its mettle and unite it to God, as the prophet says, “Lord, in tribulation we were made mindful of you.”29 So, as we said, we must not let ourselves be bowled over or become slothful, but stand firm and give thanks in our tribulations, and pray to God with humility at all times, that He may have mercy on our weakness and protect us in all our temptation to the glory of His name.

Endnotes

  1. Apo Poemen 13; PG 65:325B; CS 59:142.
  2. Wis. 2:1
  3. 1 Thess. 5:18
  4. 1 Cor. 10:13
  5. Apo Nau 297; ROC 1909, p. 379.
  6. Apo Sisoes 6; PG 65:393A; CS 59:179.
  7. See Ch. IX, XIII, XII.
  8. Hos. 5:11, 13.
  9. Hos. 7:11.
  10. Jer. 42:19.
  11. Jer. 42:11.
  12. Jer. 42:13-14.
  13. Bar. 1:11-12.
  14. Apo Nau 192; ROC 1908, p. 276.
  15. Apo Nau 170; ROC 1908, p. 55.
  16. Cf. Dan. 4:25ff.
  17. Virtue = natural. See above, p. 180.
  18. Ps. 92:7.
  19. Cf. Ex. 1:11.
  20. Ex. 5:17.
  21. Apo Sisoes 38; PG 65:404C; CS 59:184.
  22. Apo Moses (PE 1, 28, p. 99) cited by Abba Isaiah, PE 1, 1, p. 8.
  23. Jer. 8:4.
  24. Jer. 3:22.
  25. Ex. 10:24.
  26. Ex. 10:25-26.
  27. Ex. 15:24.
  28. Acts 14:21.
  29. Is. 26:16.

From: E. P. Wheeler, Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings, Kalamazoo (MI): Cistercian Publications, 1977, pp. 192-200.


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