Letters from the Desert: Barsanuphius and John
Translated by John Chryssavgis
Publisher: Crestwood, NY: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press.
Barsanuphius and John were Christian monks who lived in the southern region of Palestine in the early sixth century. Though these two spiritual elders lived as recluses, both monks and laypersons were drawn to their presence, and eventually the community that formed around them included two guest houses, a hospital, a large church, as well as the cells for the monks. Barsanuphius and John, known affectionately as the “Two Old Men,” communicated with their followers through letters carried back and forth by an appointed monk. Letters from the Desert is a compilation of these letters.
The letters reflect the intimate encounter between master and disciple, and reveal the course of spiritual development as it is – with ups and downs, doubts, frustrations, and struggles. The reader observes the spiritual life in all of its stages as it unfolds slowly and sometimes erratically in the lives of seekers. Barsanuphius and John consistently insisted that each individual assume responsibility for his or her actions. They understood that people differ from one another, and also that an individual’s inner and outer circumstances vary at various points in the spiritual life. Rather than lay down rigid rules, they advocated applying spiritual principles with balance and discretion. They inculcated a conscience that is more intuitive than analytical.
But above all, they pointed to “inner work,” to the central importance of prayer, continual vigilance, and heavenly joy. Responding to a monk who felt that he was not living a disciplined enough life, Barsanuphius replied:
Inner work with labour of heart brings purity, and purity brings true quiet of heart, and such quiet brings humility, and humility renders a person the dwelling place of God… Then, that person is found to be a temple of God, sanctified, illumined, purified, graceful, filled with every fragrance, goodness and gladness; and that person is found to be a God-bearer, or rather is even found to be a god, according to the one who said: ‘I have said, that you are gods, and all children of the Most High’ (Psalms 81:6 and John 10:34).
One monk asked Barsanuphius how a person can become worthy of the pure spiritual life. He responded:
Beloved brother in the Lord, God has given us to walk easily in the way of his will, which leads to eternal life. Let me tell you what this is and how we are able to achieve this in order thus to acquire all of the eternal goods. Since our Lord Jesus Christ has said: ‘Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened for you’ (Matthew 7:7), then pray to this good God in order that he might send his Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to us. When this comes, it shall teach us about everything and reveal all of the mysteries to us. Seek to be guided by this Spirit. It will not allow deceit or distraction in the heart. It will not permit despondency or melancholy in the mind. It illumines the eyes, supports the heart, and uplifts the intellect. Cleave to this, trust it, and love it. For it renders the foolish wise and bestows, teaches and grants strength and modesty, joy and righteousness, long-suffering and meekness, love and peace. Therefore, you possess a sure rock.
A monk asked of John: “Which is the way to salvation? Is it through labour, or through humility?” John replied, “True labour, brother, does not come without humility.” He went on to explain the importance of humility in the spiritual life. “And if someone wants to possess genuine humility, that person should not reckon himself as being anything; for this is true humility.” At the end of the letter, John circled back to the original question about labour and said, “Brother, unless your heart labours in everything in search for the Lord, you cannot progress. If you spend time on these matters, you will arrive at them. For it is said, ‘Be still’ (Psalms 45:11).”
When another monk wrote that he could do nothing on his own and begged for help and strength from Barsanuphius in order to carry out his duties, the reply he received was:
Do not become despondent. When you fall, arise; when you err, blame yourself until the Lord shows you the mercy you desire. Simply do not be neglectful. Take courage in the fact that the Lord who established you in this work will also direct it… The one who assigned you to this charge is the same one who said to his disciples: ‘Behold, I am sending you out’ (Matthew 10:16); and again: ‘Behold, I am with you’ (Matthew 28:20)… You only need to pay attention to yourself as much as you can, and God will come to your assistance. Fare well in the Lord, taking strength with him.
Some of the letters are written to laypersons, people who were living a householder’s life. These visitors had journeyed from near and far to receive guidance from the Two Old Men. One asked: “How is it possible to give thanks to God worthily?” Noting how ordinary humans proclaim their gratitude to others even for small favours, Barsanuphius replied:
How much more so, then, should we give thanks, who receive benefits from God in every way! With what words can we thank him, who before all else created us, then offered us assistance against our enemies by giving us prudence of heart, health of body, light in our eyes, breath of life, and, above all, a place of repentance and the possibility to receive his Body and Blood for forgiveness of sins and the establishment of our heart.
Visitors asked many practical questions about dealing with distracting thoughts, whether to believe in dreams, struggles with meditation and prayer, dealing with difficult people, when to speak and when to be silent, temptation, illness, and healing. Each question was answered with advice grounded in experience as well as with references to the scriptures. When asked about negative thoughts, Barsanuphius replied, “When the thoughts enter our intellect, it is like seed being sown, and this is not to our condemnation. However, when we consent to these thoughts, that is when we are handling them badly, and this is certainly to our condemnation.” When Barsanuphius was asked for mercy, he answered, “If you truly want to be saved listen to my words and put them into practice. Raise your feet from the ground (arise from your slothfulness) and lift your intellect up toward heaven; and let your meditation stay there day and night.” A man who was ill confided some of his secret faults to Barsanuphius, and the reply he received was:
If you truly believe that it is actually God who has brought you to this place, then entrust him with your cares and cast on him all your concerns; and he will dispose your affairs as he wills… The person who gives oneself to God must do so unto death and with one’s whole heart. God knows, far more than we do, what is good for our soul and body. And to the degree that he allows you to be afflicted in the body, he accordingly lightens the burden of your sins. God, then, demands nothing from you but thanksgiving and patience and prayer for the forgiveness of sins.
A layman who was a professor of secular wisdom asked whether he should accept a promotion. Barsanuphius seemingly sidestepped the question, advising him not to feel arrogant. When the man asked him about it again, the answer came back, “God has always chosen the humble. Have humility, and God will assist you quickly.”
Throughout the letters, the Two Old Men remain positive, identifying with the sorrows of those who wrote to them but always lifting up their spirits.
Be vigilant, awaken from the stupor of your heavy sleep, rise up with Peter and the rest of the apostles to cry out to the Saviour of all, Christ, and with a loud voice: ‘Master, save us, for we are drowning’ (Luke 8:24). And he will surely come to you as well, rebuking the winds and the sea, calming the storm that surrounds your boat, namely the winter of your soul.
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