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Barlaam And Ioasaph by St. John Of Damascus

To this said Ioasaph, ‘But how, after baptism, shall a man keep himself clear from all sin? For even if there be, as thou sayest, repentance for them that stumble, yet it is attended with toil and trouble, with weeping and mourning; things which, methinks, are not easy for the many to accomplish. But I desired rather to find a way to keep strictly the commandments of God, and not swerve from them, and, after his pardoning of my past misdeeds, never again to provoke that most sweet God and Master.’

Barlaam answered, ‘Well said, my lord and king. That also is my desire; but it is hard, nay quite impossible, for a man living with fire not to be blackened with smoke: for it is an uphill task, and one not easy of accomplishment, for a man that is tied to the matters of this life and busied with its cares and troubles, and liveth in riches and luxury, to walk unswervingly in the way of the commandments of the Lord, and to preserve his life pure of these evils. “For,” saith the Lord, “no man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” So also writeth the beloved Evangelist and Divine in his Epistle, thus saying, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”

‘These things were well understood by our holy and inspired fathers; and mindful of the Apostle’s word that we must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, they strove, after holy baptism, to keep their garment of immortality spotless and undefiled. Whence some of them also thought fit to receive yet another baptism; I mean that which is by blood and martyrdom. For this too is called baptism, the most honourable of all, inasmuch as its waters are not polluted by fresh sin; which also our Lord underwent for our sakes, and rightly called it baptism. So as imitators and followers of him, first his eyewitnesses, disciples, and Apostles, and then the whole band of holy martyrs yielded themselves, for the name of Christ, to kings and tyrants that worshipped idols, and endured every form of torment, being exposed to wild beasts, fire and sword, confessing the good confession, running the course and keeping the faith. Thus “they gained the prizes of righteousness, and became the companions of Angels, and fellow-heirs with Christ. Their virtue shone so bright that their sound went out into all lands, and the splendour of their good deeds flashed like lightning into the ends of the earth. Of these men, not only the words and works, but even the very blood and bones are full of all sanctity, mightily casting out devils, and giving to such as touch them in faith the healing of incurable diseases: yea, and even their garments, and anything else that hath been brought near their honoured bodies, are always worthy of the reverence of all creation. And it were a long tale to tell one by one their deeds of prowess.

‘But when those cruel and brutal tyrants brought their miserable lives to a miserable end, and persecution ceased, and Christian kings ruled throughout the world, then others too in succession emulated the Martyrs’ zeal and divine desire, and, wounded at heart with the same love, considered well how they might present soul and body without blemish unto God, by cutting off all the workings of sinful lusts and purifying themselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit. But, as they perceived that this could only be accomplished by the keeping of the commandments of Christ, and that the keeping of his commandments and the practice of the virtues was difficult to attain in the midst of the turmoils of the world, they adopted for themselves a strange and changed manner of life, and, obedient to the voice divine, forsook all, parents, children, friends, kinsfolk, riches and luxury, and, hating everything in the world, withdrew, as exiles, into the deserts, being destitute, afflicted, evil entreated, wandering in wildernesses and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth, self-banished from all the pleasures and delights upon earth, and standing in sore need even of bread and shelter. This they did for two causes: firstly, that never seeing the objects of sinful lust, they might pluck such desires by the root out of their soul, and blot out the memory thereof, and plant within themselves the love and desire of divine and heavenly things: and secondly, that, by exhausting the flesh by austerities, and becoming Martyrs in will, they might not miss the glory of them that were made perfect by blood, but might be themselves, in their degree, imitators of the sufferings of Christ, and become partakers of the kingdom that hath no end. Then, after best consideration, they adopted the quiet of monastic life, some facing the rigours of the open air, and braving the blaze of the scorching heat and fierce frosts and rain-storms and tempestuous winds, others spending their lives in the hovels which they had builded them, or in the hiding of holes and caverns. Thus, in pursuit of virtue, they utterly denied themselves all fleshly comfort and repose, submitting to a diet of uncooked herbs and worts, or acorns, or hard dry bread, not merely saying good-bye to delights in their quality, but, in very excess of temperance, extending their zeal to limit even the quantity of enjoyment. For even of those common and necessary meats they took only so much as was sufficient to sustain life. Some of them continued fasting the whole week, and partook of victuals only of a Sunday: others thought of food twice only in the week: others ate every other day, or daily at eventide—that is, took but a taste of food. In prayers and watchings they almost rivalled the life of Angels, bidding a long farewell to the possession of gold and silver, and quite forgetting that buyings and sellings are concerns of men.

‘But envy and pride, the evils most prone to follow good works, had no place amongst them. He that was weaker in ascetic exercises entertained no thought of malice against him of brighter example. Nor again was he, that had accomplished great feats, deceived and puffed up by arrogance to despise his weaker brethren, or set at nought his neighbour, or boast of his rigours, or glory in his achievements. He that excelled in virtue ascribed nothing to his own labours, but all to the power of God, in humility of mind persuading himself that his labours were nought and that he was debtor even for more, as saith the Lord, “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.’ ” Others again persuaded themselves that they had not done even the things which they were commanded to do, but that the things left undone outnumbered the things already well done. Again, he that was far behind in austerity, perchance through bodily weakness, would disparage and blame himself, attributing his failure to slothfulness of mind rather than to natural frailty. So each excelled each, and all excelled all in this sweet reasonableness. But the spirit of vain glory and pleasing of men—what place had it among them? For they had fled from the world, and were dwelling in the desert, to the end that they might show their virtues not to men, but to God, from whom also they hoped to receive the rewards of their good deeds, well aware that religious exercises performed for vain glory go without recompense; for these are done for the praise of men and not for God. Whence all that do thus are doubly defrauded: they waste their body, and receive no reward. But they who yearn for glory above, and strive thereafter, despise all earthly and human glory.

‘As to their dwellings, some monks finish the contest in utter retirement and solitude, having removed themselves far from the haunts of men throughout the whole of their earthly life-time, and having drawn nigh to God. Others build their homes at a distance one from another, but meet on the Lord’s Day at one Church, and communicate of the Holy Mysteries, I mean the unbloody Sacrifice of the undefiled Body and precious Blood of Christ, which the Lord gave to the Faithful for the remission of sins, for the enlightenment and sanctification of soul and body. They entertain one another with the exercises of the divine Oracles and moral exhortations, and make public the secret wiles of their adversaries, that none, through ignorance of the manner of wrestling, may be caught thus. Then turn they again, each to his own home, eagerly storing the honey of virtue in the cells of their hearts, and husbanding sweet fruits worthy of the heavenly board.

‘Others again spend their life in monasteries. These gather in multitudes in one spot, and range themselves under one superior and president, the best of their number, slaying all self-will with the sword of obedience. Of their own free choice they consider themselves as slaves bought at a price, and no longer live for themselves, but for him, to whom, for Christ his sake, they have become obedient; or rather, to speak more properly, they live no more for themselves, but Christ liveth in them, whom to follow, they renounce all. This is retirement, a voluntary hatred of the world, and denial of nature by desire of things above nature. These men therefore live the lives of Angels on earth, chanting psalms and hymns with one consent unto the Lord, and purchasing for themselves the title of Confessors by labours of obedience. And in them is fulfilled the word of the Lord, when he saith, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” By this number he limiteth not the gathering together in his name, but by “two or three” signifieth that the number is indefinite. For, whether there be many, or few, gathered together because of his holy name, serving him with fervent zeal, there we believe him to be present in the midst of his servants.

‘By these ensamples and such like assemblies men of earth and clay imitate the life of heavenly beings, in fastings and prayers and watchings, in hot tears and constant sorrow, as soldiers in the field with death before their eyes, in meekness and gentleness, in silence of the lips, in poverty and want, in chastity and temperance, in holiness and quietude of mind, in perfect charity toward God and their neighbour, carrying their present life down to the grave, and becoming Angels in their ways. Wherefore God hath graced them with miracles, signs and various virtues and made the voice of their marvellous life to be sounded forth to the ends of the world. If I open my mouth to declare in every point the life of one of them who is said to have been the founder of the monastic life, Antony by name, by this one tree thou shalt assuredly know the sweet fruits of other trees of the like kind and form, and shalt know what a foundation of religious life that great man laid, and what a roof he built, and what gifts he merited to receive from the Saviour. After him many fought the like fight and won like crowns and guerdons.

Blessed, yea, thrice blessed, are they that have loved God, and, for his love’s sake, have counted every thing as nothing worth. For they wept and mourned, day and night, that they might gain everlasting comfort: they humbled themselves willingly, that there they might be exalted: they afflicted the flesh with hunger and thirst and vigil, that there they might come to the pleasures and joys of Paradise. By their purity of heart they became a tabernacle of the Holy Ghost, as it is written, “I will dwell in them and walk in them.” They crucified themselves unto the world, that they might stand at the right hand of the Crucified: they girt their loins with truth, and alway had their lamps ready, looking for the coming of the heavenly bridegroom. The eye of their mind being enlightened, they continually looked forward to that awful hour, and kept the contemplation of future happiness and everlasting punishment immovable from their hearts, and pained themselves to labour, that they might not lose eternal glory. They became passionless as the Angels, and now they weave the dance in their fellowship, whose lives also they imitated. Blessed, yea, thrice blessed are they, because with sure spiritual vision they discerned the vanity of this present world and the uncertainty and inconstancy of mortal fortune, and cast it aside, and laid up for themselves everlasting blessings, and laid hold of that life which never faileth, nor is broken by death.

These then are the marvellous holy men whose examples we, that are poor and vile, strive to imitate, but cannot attain to the high level of the life of these heavenly citizens. Nevertheless, so far as is possible for our weakness and feeble power, we take the stamp of their lives, and wear their habit, even though we fail to equal their works; for we are assured that this holy profession is a means to perfection and an aid to the incorruption given us by holy baptism. So, following the teachings of these blessed Saints, we utterly renounce these corruptible and perishable things of life, wherein may be found nothing stable or constant, or that continueth in one stay; but all things are vanity and vexation of spirit, and many are the changes that they bring in a moment; for they are slighter than dreams and a shadow, or the breeze that bloweth the air. Small and short-lived is their charm, that is after all no charm, but illusion and deception of the wickedness of the world; which world we have been taught to love not at all, but rather to hate with all our heart. Yea, and verily it is worthy of hatred and abhorrence; for whatsoever gifts it giveth to its friends, these in turn in passion it taketh away, and shall hand over its victims, stripped of all good things, clad in the garment of shame, and bound under heavy burdens, to eternal tribulation. And those again whom it exalteth, it quickly abaseth to the utmost wretchedness, making them a foot-stool and a laughing stock for their enemies. Such are its charms, such its bounties. For it is an enemy of its friends, and traitor to such as carry out its wishes: dasheth to destruction all them that lean upon it, and enervateth those that put their trust therein. It maketh covenants with fools and fair false promises, only that it may allure them to itself. But, as they have dealt treacherously, it proveth itself treacherous and false in fulfilling none of its pledges. To-day it tickleth their gullet with pleasant dainties; to-morrow it maketh them nought but a gobbet for their enemies. To-day it maketh a man a king: to-morrow it delivereth him into bitter servitude. To-day its thrall is fattening on a thousand good things; to-morrow he is a beggar, and drudge of drudges. To-day it placeth on his head a crown of glory; to-morrow it dasheth his face upon the ground. To-day it adorneth his neck with brilliant badges of dignity; to-morrow it humbleth him with a collar of iron. For a little while it causeth him to be the desire of all men; but after a time it maketh him their hate and abomination. To-day it gladdeneth him: but to-morrow it weareth him to a shadow with lamentations and wailings. What is the end thereof, thou shalt hear. Ruthlessly it bringeth its former lovers to dwell in hell. Such is ever its mind, such its purposes. It lamenteth not its departed, nor pitieth the survivor. For after that it hath cruelly duped and entangled in its meshes the one party, it immediately transferreth the resources of its ingenuity against the other, not willing that any should escape its cruel snares.

‘These men that have foolishly alienated themselves from a good and kind master, to seek the service of so harsh and savage a lord, that are all agog for present joys and are glued thereto, that take never a thought for the future, that always grasp after bodily enjoyments, but suffer their souls to waste with hunger, and to be worn with myriad ills, these I consider to be like a man flying before the face of a rampant unicorn, who, unable to endure the sound of the beast’s cry, and its terrible bellowing, to avoid being devoured, ran away at full speed. But while he ran hastily, he fell into a great pit; and as he fell, he stretched forth his hands, and laid hold on a tree, to which he held tightly. There he established some sort of foot-hold and thought himself from that moment in peace and safety. But he looked and descried two mice, the one white, the other black, that never ceased to gnaw the root of the tree whereon he hung, and were all but on the point of severing it. Then he looked down to the bottom of the pit and espied below a dragon, breathing fire, fearful for eye to see, exceeding fierce and grim, with terrible wide jaws, all agape to swallow him. Again looking closely at the ledge whereon his feet rested, he discerned four heads of asps projecting from the wall whereon he was perched. Then he lift up his eyes and saw that from the branches of the tree there dropped a little honey. And thereat he ceased to think of the troubles whereby he was surrounded; how, outside, the unicorn was madly raging to devour him: how, below, the fierce dragon was yawning to swallow him: how the tree, which he had clutched, was all but severed; and how his feet rested on slippery, treacherous ground. Yea, he forgat, without care, all those sights of awe and terror, and his whole mind hung on the sweetness of that tiny drop of honey.

‘This is the likeness of those who cleave to the deceitfulness of this present life,—the interpretation whereof I will declare to thee anon. The unicorn is the type of death, ever in eager pursuit to overtake the race of Adam. The pit is the world, full of all manner of ills and deadly snares. The tree, which was being continually fretted by the two mice, to which the man clung, is the course of every man’s life, that spendeth and consuming itself hour by hour, day and night, and gradually draweth nigh its severance. The fourfold asps signify the structure of man’s body upon four treacherous and unstable elements which, being disordered and disturbed, bring that body to destruction. Furthermore, the fiery cruel dragon betokeneth the man of hell that is hungry to receive those who choose present pleasures rather than future blessings. The dropping of honey denoteth the sweetness of the delights of the world, whereby it deceiveth its own friends, nor suffereth them to take timely thought for their salvation.’

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