Abba Nesteros The Great - Part 2
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
The thrust of the spiritual life is that one would become an expert in the practical spiritual life.
“Wherefore if you are anxious to attain to the light of spiritual knowledge, not wrongly for an idle boast but for the sake of being made better men… endeavour with all eagerness to gain in the first place a thorough grasp of practical knowledge.”
And in mastering the practical spiritual life, individuals would press onward and upward to spiritual maturity.
“And therefore if you would prepare in your heart a holy tabernacle of spiritual knowledge, purge yourselves from the stain of all sins, and rid yourselves of the cares of this world. For it is an impossibility for the soul which is taken up even to a small extent with worldly troubles, to gain the gift of knowledge or to become an author of spiritual interpretation, and diligent in reading holy things.”
The practical life serves to purge men of sin, and prepare a monk to gain spiritual knowledge.
Through the whole progression, the heart and intent of man is important. One who pursues knowledge for the purpose of gaining the praise of men cannot hope to attain true spiritual knowledge. This man is…
“…bound by the chain of this passion, is sure to be also in bondage to other faults, and especially to that of pride: and so if he is baffled by his encounter with practical and ethical knowledge, he will certainly not attain that spiritual knowledge which springs from it.”
The desert fathers treat the human holistically, if his intent is impure in one area, on some level, sin still reigns within his heart. Until the passion of sin is brought to death, he cannot hope to attain purity. If anger still resides within the heart, it betrays a deeper allegiance to the carnal nature. Anger, for instance, must dealt with in its totality. If the motive is impure for gaining spiritual knowledge, then the application of that knowledge would be impure.
The spiritual one must endeavor to deal with the whole heart and bring the entire man into subjection to Christ. Too often we leave the work of redemption partially unfinished and retain attachment to certain desires and lusts. Without bringing those passions to the foot of the cross, the foothold they have within the heart remains.
There remains a chasm between those who have knowledge and those who have been and are being spiritual enlightened. The most consistent mark of that chasm is the ability to pierce the hidden mysteries of God.
“For it is one thing to have a ready tongue and elegant language, and quite another to penetrate into the very heart and marrow of heavenly utterances and to gaze with the pure eye of the soul on profound and hidden mysteries; for this can be gained by no learning of man’s, nor condition of this world, only by purity of soul, by means of the illumination of the Holy Ghost.”
It is one thing to be eloquent, it is quite another to pierce the hidden mysteries of Christ. Many a simple man has confounded the wise and learned with the simple wisdom of Christ.
True humility is a key to spiritual maturity.
“You must then, if you want to get at the true knowledge of the Scriptures, endeavour first to secure steadfast humility of heart, to carry you on by the perfection of love not to the knowledge which puffeth up, but to that which enlightens.”
True knowledge of scripture enlightens the inner man, it does not puff up and stir pride.
This is applicable to prophetic ministry. A true word from God when received by the prophetically inspired person will move the man or woman with love for the one God desires to speak with. A word diluted with worldly care and soulish issues will carry with it that which fills the soul of the prophet. It will work from the pride of the individual and bring attention to the one giving the word. The mark of maturity when it comes to prophetic ministry is the ability to weigh the inclination of the heart when a word from God is received with the purpose of ministering to someone. This takes incredible, gut-wrenching honesty with God and those who walk closely with the individual.
Often, when attempting to meditate, pray, and become intimate with Christ, our mind is filled with the images of past pain, memories, sin, etc… How are we to deal with our thought life as it robs us of the intimate moments with Christ we long for? To Abba Nesteros, the answer was simple. We must exert as much effort in acquiring continual meditation and prayer as we did in our secular life.
“For as long as it has nothing to recur to and exercise itself upon unweariedly, it is sure to fall back upon what it learnt in childhood, and ever to think about what it took in by long use and meditation.”
If we fail to fill our mind with a new mode of thought it will return to the old one quickly. The patterns, pain, and cycles we learned in our upbringing will dictate what we become unless we give our mind something else to ponder.
Regarding this Abba Nesteros said,
“Next you must by all means strive to get rid of all anxiety and worldly thoughts, and give yourself over assiduously or rather continuously, to sacred reading, until continual meditation fills your heart, and fashions you so to speak after its own likeness…”
Who of us has not watched a television show and spent the next hour thinking of the characters and plot points? What we fill our mind with we will dwell on, to our detriment or our benefit.
Prayer, meditating upon scripture, and reading of the sacred texts will…
“…continually protect the mercy seat of God, i.e., the peace of your heart, and overshadow it from all the assaults of spiritual wickedness.”
We train our heart by what we turn it towards.
The movement towards spiritual maturity is two-fold, the erasing of the stain of sin from the soul and the getting of virtue.
“And therefore if you are anxious to attain to that never-failing fragrance, you must first strive with all your might to obtain from the Lord the purity of chastity. For no one, in whom the love of carnal passions and especially of fornication still holds sway, can acquire spiritual knowledge.”
To the depth the passions (anger, desire, lust, envy, etc…) still hold sway, they will influence the heart of man. To the desert fathers, the preparation of the heart of man for deep spiritual truth was of the utmost importance. The heart must be purged from sin in order to fully embrace righteousness. Without this purging, the vessel is impure and unable to carry the depth of insight the Lord desires for all who seek Him.
Without purging, illumination cannot come. Purging requires the honest recognition that we carry past hurts, pain, sin, manipulation, insecurity, jealousy and many other tendencies. If we cannot admit that we carry these stains upon our soul, how can we hope to bring them before the Lord and allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse us of them? God is the source of all purity and illumination.
As the mind is transformed the spiritual man slowly comes alive, and an ever growing fire begins to warm his soul.
“And so if these things have been carefully taken in and stored up in the recesses of the soul and stamped with the seal of silence, afterwards like some sweet scented wine that maketh glad the heart of man, they will, when mellowed by the antiquity of the thoughts and by long-standing patience, be brought forth from the jar of your heart with great fragrance, and like some perennial fountain will flow abundantly from the veins of experience and irrigating channels of virtue and will pour forth copious streams as if from some deep well in your heart.”
But with all that said, Abba Nesteros gives himself an out when his method of growth is superseded by God.
“But sometimes in the lavish generosity of God in His Providence, “Who willeth all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” it is granted that one who has not shown himself by an irreproachable life to be worthy of the preaching of the gospel attains the grace of spiritual teaching for the good of many.”
Sometimes God just chooses to do stuff his own way.
Abba Nesteros taught that there were three basic outworkings of spiritual gifts: the grace of God upon the life of an individual, the faith of a community for a person to be cured, or the deception of demonic forces to influence others towards sin.
“The first indeed is for the sake of healing, when the grace of signs accompanies certain elect and righteous men on account of the merits of their holiness.”
The first reason we see great gift is because God places a grace upon the lives of certain individuals. Those lives witness to the holiness of God and the purity of God and inspire others to follow suit.
“The second when for the edification of the church or on account of the faith of those who bring their sick, or of those who are to be cured, the virtue of health proceeds even from sinners and men unworthy of it.”
The second reason we may see the gift of God in operation is because of the faith of a community. This is evidenced when the friends of the man laying on his mat lowered him through the roof of the house. Nothing is said of the purity of their hearts, only that they had faith their friend would be healed.
“The third method of healing is copied by the deceit and contrivance of devils, that, when a man who is enslaved to evident sins is out of admiration for his miracles regarded as a saint and a servant of God, men may be persuaded to copy his sins…”
The enemy may operate through an individual who is given to sin in order to deceive others to follow his pattern. The general deception being, “If he can perform those miracles yet still live in that ungodly manner, maybe that is permissible.” The outworking of this is that demons cease their affliction in order to sow discord into a community and promote a promiscuous life.
Because of this three fold understanding we must not be caught up with those who have a great gift, but rather those who practice holiness.
“Wherefore we never ought to admire those who affect these things, for these powers, but rather to look whether they are perfect in driving out all sins, and amending their ways…”
The true test of Godliness is not giftedness, it is integrity.
In commenting on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12-14 on spiritual gifts, Nesteros shows that the gift is not the thing to be sought but, rather love. At the end of the list of gifts,
“Paul says, “I show unto you a still more excellent way.” By which it is clearly shown that the height of perfection and blessedness does not consist in the performance of those wonderful works but in the purity of love.”
While we live in a day and age when people are respected for the charisma they carry, in the time of the desert fathers their inspiration were those who loved well.
“And so these men gave no credit to themselves for their power of working such wonders, because they confessed that they were done not by their own merits but by the compassion of the Lord and with the words of the Apostle they refused the human honour offered out of admiration for their miracles: “Men and brethren, why marvel ye at this, or why look ye on us as though by our own power or holiness we had caused this man to walk.”
The fathers who had gone before never sought credit for performing a miracle, but recognized the miraculous as the working of God and not of themselves. They hadn’t healed anyone, God had healed.
To Abba Nesteros, the warning in Matthew 7:22-23 (Get away from me I never knew you) is clear.
“And therefore He actually warns those, to whom He Himself has given this glory of miracles and mighty works because of their holiness, that they be not puffed up by them, saying: “Rejoice not because the devils are subject to you, but rejoice rather because your names are written in heaven.”
Almost no clearer indication could be made by Jesus than this admonition that we seek not the gift, but rather the love of God shed abroad in our hearts.
In continuing to expound on spiritual gifts, Abba Nesteros turned to the teaching of Jesus. When Jesus said, “Come and learn of Me,” he did not teach them…
“…to cast out devils by the power of heaven, not to cleanse the lepers, not to give sight to the blind, not to raise the dead…”
But rather, Nesteros says,
“…says He, learn this of Me, “for I am meek and lowly of heart.”
When Jesus invites his disciples to learn from him, he teaches them about his heart.
That we should not seek the charisma of the person, but the character of the person should be evident by now. But Abba Nesteros goes on. He begins by again quoting Jesus,
“By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love to one another.” He says not: “if ye do signs and miracles in the same way,” but “ if ye have love to one another ;” and this it is certain that none but the meek and humble can keep.”
People will know him in us by the way in which we love, not by the miracles that are wrought by our hands. Sometimes, it is easier to pray for a miracle than to love the person and give of yourself on behalf of them. Dying for someone is harder than praying for someone.
Finally, to Abba Nesteros the greatest miracle you can perform is not in delivering someone else, but in growing in Godliness and Christlikeness.
“And in truth it is a greater miracle to root out from one’s own flesh the incentives to wantonness than to cast out unclean spirits from the bodies of others, and it is a grander sign to restrain the fierce passions of anger by the virtue of patience than to command the powers of the air, and it is a greater thing to have shut out the devouring pangs of gloominess from one’s own heart than to have expelled the sickness of another and the fever of his body.”