St Neilos on Ascetic Discourses

The writings in the Philokalia are written for monks leading a monastic life, and often you need to take the advice allegorically to apply to your life in the world.  For example, you should treat marriage can be seen as a joint monastic calling, for if each spouse tries to live for the other spouse rather than themselves, then their marriage will certainly be a loving marriage, deepening in each other their Love of God and their neighbor, both friends and enemies, and also family and coworkers and acquaintances.  But we should be mindful of St Paul’s advice and not withhold affection, except for a time with mutual consent, to spend time in prayer.  Also, much of the advice St Neilos the Ascetic gives in his Ascetic Discourse are for those men who seek to be spiritual advisors, mainly so they should not be so eager to seek to lead in humility.  We can allegorically apply this advice in our roles as parents or teachers or leaders in the secular world.

Monks renounce their possessions, renounce their wealth, renounce the world, but they cannot renounce the security of having a place to live and meager food to eat, whereas we in the world cling to our wealth, we cling to our possessions, we worry about keeping our jobs, for if we lose our job, we lose our wealth, we lose our security, and out the door we go.  But still we can learn what St Neilos teaches us when he warns us about clinging to possessions and wealth.

St Neilos asks us, “Is it ever right to engage in disputes in order to protect our property?”  Should we not do as Jesus bids us, to also give our cloak to those who take our coat, to walk two miles when we are forced to walk one, to turn the other cheek?  How should we act when our neighbor steals our treasure, like when Jezebel had Naboth killed so she could steal his vineyard for her husband Ahab?  “Must we lose all self-control in such situations, and become worse than madmen?” St Nelios asks, “Why do we try to make other people’s property our own, weighing ourselves down with material fetters?”

St Nelios continues, “So possessions arouse feelings of jealousy against their owners, . . . divide families, and make friends hate one another.  Possessions have no place in the life to come, and even in this present life have no great use.  Why, then, do we abandon the service of God and devote ourselves entirely to empty trivialities?  For it is God who supplies us with all we need.”(206-207)

Trivialities?  Money has no great use down here?  Can I trust in God to pay my rent?  Will God get me another job.  Perhaps so, when we lose our job we should be thankful for our trial, we should pray to God for strength, and when we find another job we should be thankful for his mercy and be thankful that we don’t have to get any stronger at the moment.  We must always believe that God tinkers in the affairs of men, maybe we will notice the tinkering, maybe not, but if we are out there trying our best with a good and kindly heart, we must believe God will bless our efforts and send opportunities our way.  We need to give the cloak and the coat and the wealth and the money, but if we need to feed our family, maybe we should not be so quick to give up the cloak and the coast, maybe we should cling onto them, for there is tension when we live in the world, we have an obligation also to our family we must honor, we can want to always give up our coat and cloak, but only when we can.

Maybe we should not be eager to engage in disputes to protect our wealth, but sometimes we need to hire attorneys to look after our interests and argue for justice, allowing the attorneys to fight on our behalf so our anger does not sour our soul and make us madmen.  We should not let our souls sour because others stole from us, lest next year we steal from other neighbors, for we do not want to hurt and curse and steal tomorrow because yesterday we were hurt and cursed and beaten up and ground into the earth.  Lord, give us the strength to forgive all wrongs, especially when someone hurts us so deeply we have to ask for the strength to forgive them every day, may we not be bitter and angry and resentful, may we always live a life of purposeful naivety, always thinking the best of our neighbor, rather than the worst, so we can bring out the best in our neighbor, so all whom we meet will be slightly better people because they met us.  Lord, may we always be hopeful, may we always be loving, may we be always faithful, Lord, protect us from our huts, may our hurts and our anger and our resentments not be who we are.

Like the country song sings, money may not buy you happiness, but money will surely buy you a boat, and money will buy you a truck to pull the boat, and money will buy you a house and a yard to park the truck and the boat in, and money will buy you vacations for the truck to pull the boat to, and clothes, and breakfast, and dinner for your wife and your kids, and money can buy security and freedom from want.  So money is okay, as long as we don’t go overboard.

Freedom from want, that was one of FDR’s Four Freedoms in a speech delivered as America was emerging from the Great Depression, and as America was headed into the winds of war in the Atlantic against Hitler, and in the Pacific facing Japan.  The Four Freedoms were freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  The third struggle would be to secure these freedoms for all Americans, white and black, in the great civil rights struggles of that century.

St Neilos contrasts the holy men “who live for the soul alone, turning away from the body and its wants,” the holy men who have no need to flatter the wealthy because they live simply, to those of us who, “instead of courageously struggling against our difficulties, come fawning to the wealthy, like puppies wagging their tails in the hope of being tossed a bare bone or some crumbs.  To get what we want, we can them benefactors and protectors of Christians, attributing every virtue to them, even though they may be utterly wicked.” (213)[1]

[1] St Nelios the Ascetic, “Ascetic Discourse,” in the Philokalia, The Complete Text, compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Volume 1, translated and edited by GEH Palmer, Phillip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), pp 199-250.

About Bruce Strom 127 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

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