|Miniature from the Hunter Psalter. English manuscript, 7th c.|
But concerning those who reveal their thoughts and actions and do everything with counsel, the Scripture says, In much counsel there is safety. It did not say, "In the counsel of many," to imply that we should counsel with everyone, but rather that we should counsel about everything with someone we trust, not revealing one thing and remaining silent about another, but revealing everything and taking counsel about everything. To one who acts this way there is truly salvation in much counsel. For if a man does not reveal everything concerning himself, and especially if he is possessed of some bad habit or was in bad society, then the devil will find some desire or self-justification in him, and will use this to throw him down.
When the devil sees that someone does not wish to sin, he is not so unskilled in the doing of evil as to begin to suggest to him some kind of obvious sins. He does not say to him, go and commit fornication, or go and steal; for he knows that we do not desire this, and he does not consider it necessary to suggest to us what we do not desire. But he finds in us, as I have said, a single desire, or a single self-justification, and thus under the pretext of something good he does harm to us. Wherefore again it is said, A bad man does harm, wherever he meets a just man (Prov. 11:15). The bad man is the devil, and he does harm wherever he meets a just man, that is, when he joins with our self-justification; then he becomes stronger, then he does us more harm, then he is more effective. For when we keep to our own will and follow our justification, then in doing what seems to be a good work, we lay snares for ourselves and we do not even know how we are perishing. For how can we come to understand the will of God or seek it, if we believe ourselves and keep to our own will? It is for this reason that Abba Poemen says that our will is a bronze wall between man and God. Do you see the power of this saying? He adds that it is like a stone which stands and acts against the will of God. Therefore if a man abandons his own will, he also can say, (Ps. 17:29, 30) By my God shall I leap over a wall. As for my God, blameless is His way. This is very marvelously said! For a man can see the blameless path of God only when he abandons his own will.
But when he obeys his own will, he does not see that the ways of God are blameless. If he hears something pertaining to instruction, he immediately reproves it, denigrates it, casts it aside and acts contrary to it. For how can he endure anything or obey anyone's advice if he insists on his own will! Further the Elder speaks about self-justification: "And if self-justification comes to the aid of the will, then a man becomes completely perverted." It is remarkable what cohesiveness there is in the words of the Holy Fathers! In truth, when justification is joined to the will, this is a complete death, a great danger and a great terror—then the unfortunate one falls completely. For who would be able to force him to believe that another man knows better than he what is useful for him? Then he completely gives himself over to his own will, to his own thought, and finally the enemy arranges his fall as he likes. Therefore is it said, A bad man does harm wherever he meets a just man: and he hates the sound of safety. For the evil one hates not only the instruction itself, but he cannot even bear the very voice of him who pronounces it, he hates even the very voice of instruction, that is, when anyone speaks anything which serves for instruction. Before the one who is asking for profitable counsel begins to act according to the advice that is given to him, before the enemy can tell whether or not he will fulfill what he has heard, the enemy already hates the very fact that he has asked someone about it or has heard something profitable; he hates the very voice, the very sound of those words, and they repulse him. Does one need to ask why? He knows that his evil doings are discovered the moment one begins to ask or speak about what is profitable. And he hates nothing so much and fears nothing so much as to be found out, because then he can no longer deceive the person as he likes. For if the soul becomes rooted in the practice of always asking about its concerns, and hears from an experienced person, "Do this, but do not do that; this is good, but that is not good; this if self-justification, that is self-will," and if he hears likewise, "Now is not the time for this work," and another time he hears, "Now is the time," then the devil does not find a way to harm the man or throw him, because he always, as I have already said, takes counsel and guards himself on all sides. Thus in him are fulfilled the words, In much counsel there is safety.
The evil one does not want this but rather hates it, for he wanted to do evil, and rejoices in those that have no guidance. Why is this? Because they fall like leaves. Remember that brother whom the evil one loved and about whom he told Abba Macarius, "I have a certain brother who, when he sees me, spins like a top." Such ones he loves, and always rejoices over those who live without instruction, not entrusting themselves to someone who might help them and guide them according to God. Did not the demon go at that time to all the brethren, when the Saint saw him carrying various foods in the gourds? Did he not visit everyone? But each of them, perceiving his nets, went to his spiritual father and revealed his thoughts, and found help during the time of temptation; therefore the evil one was not able to master them. He found only one unfortunate one who followed his own way and had help from no one, and therefore the evil one treated him as a toy, thanked him as he departed and cursed the others. When the enemy told Abba Macarius about this matter and told him the name of the brother, the Saint went to him and found that the reason for his condition was that he did not want to confess his thoughts; he found that he did not have the custom of revealing them to anyone. Therefore the enemy spun him as he wished. When the holy elder asked that brother, "And how is it with you O brother?" he replied: "Well enough, by your holy prayers." When the saint again asked, "Are not your thoughts warring with you?" he replied, "Right now, all is well with me." And he did not wish to confess anything until the Saint skillfully forced him to reveal his thoughts and, having spoken the word of God to him, made him steadfast and turned him around.
According to his custom the enemy went again, desiring to vanquish this brother. But he was put to shame, for he found him corrected and could therefore no longer mock him; he went away without succeeding in doing anything, put to shame even by this brother. Therefore, when the saint again asked the demon, "How is that brother, your friend?" the demon no longer called him "friend," but "enemy," and cursed him, saying, "Now he too has been perverted and does not submit to me but has become even fiercer than the rest." You see how the enemy hates the sound of safety? Because he always desires our perdition. You see why he loves those who trust in themselves? Because they help the devil and make traps for themselves. I do not know any other fall for a monk apart from this: when he believes his own heart. Some say that a man falls from this or because of that; but as I have already said, I do not know any other fall apart from this—when a man follows himself. Have you seen one who has fallen? Know that he followed himself. There is nothing more dangerous, there is nothing more ruinous than this. God preserved me, and I always feared this misfortune. When I was living in coenobitism, I revealed all my thoughts to the elder, Abba John, and never, as I have said, did I decide to do anything without his counsel. And sometimes the thought would say to me, "Will not the elder say the same thing to you? Why do you wish to disturb him? And I replied to the thought, "Anathema to you and to your judgment, and to your reason and to your wisdom, and to your knowledge; for what you know you know from demons." Thus would I go and ask the Elder. It sometimes happened that he would reply to me the same thing that I already had in my mind. Then the thought would say to me, "Well, what about this? You see, this is the same thing that I told you: did you not disturb the elder in vain? And I replied to the thought, "Now it is good, now it is from the Holy Spirit; but your word is evil, from the demons, the voice and the work of a passionate disposition of soul; and thus I never allowed myself to submit to my thought without having asked the Elder. And believe me, brethren, I was in great peace, in complete lack of sorrow, so that I was even grieved about this, as I have already said to you, for I heard that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Seeing that I had no sorrow, I was afraid and was in great perplexity, not knowing the reason for such peace, until the Elder explained this to me saying, "Do not grieve, for everyone who gives himself over in obedience to the fathers has this repose and lack of sorrow.
Do you then also, O brethren, ask and do not depend on yourselves. Know what kind of lack of sorrow there is in this, what joy, what peace. But since I have said that I never grieved, listen to what happened later with me.
When I was still there in coenobitic life, there came upon me once a great and unbearable sorrow, and I was in such suffering and pressure that I was ready even to give up my very soul. But this grief came from the treachery of the demons. Such a temptation which is caused by the demons from envy is difficult for a man but short in duration; it is dark, heavy, without consolation, giving repose nowhere, but everywhere is a feeling of pressure. However, soon the grace of God visits the soul, for if the grace of God did not visit it, no one would be able to bear this. And I was, as I have said, in such a temptation, in such pressure.
One day, when I was standing in the monastery courtyard, having grown completely faint and entreating God about this, suddenly I looked into the church and saw a certain man, by appearance a bishop, who seemed to be carrying the Holy Gifts and entering the holy altar. I would never go near a pilgrim or someone who was passing by without need or a command; but something drew me to him and I went after him. Going in, he stood for a long time with raised hands, and I stood behind him praying in fear—for great fear and terror seized me at the sight of him. At the end of the prayer he turned around and came to me, and the closer he came to me the more I felt that fear and terror depart from me. Then, standing in front of me, he stretched out his hands, touched my chest, and striking it with his fingers, said, With patience I waited patiently for the Lord, and He was attentive unto me, and He hearkened unto my supplication. And He brought me up out of the pit of misery, and from the mire of clay. And He set my feet upon a rock, and He ordered my steps aright (Ps. 39:1-3). All these verses he pronounced three times each, striking my chest as I have said, and thus he went out. Immediately after this there settled in my heart a most sweet light, joy, consolation and great happiness, and I was no longer what I was before. When he went out I hastened after him, desiring to find him, but I did not find him for he had become invisible. From that time, by God's mercy, that sorrow or fear no longer troubled me, but the Lord covered me up until now for the sake of the repose of those holy elders. I have told you this, O brethren, so that you might know what peace and lack of sorrow one has who does not follow his own will, and with what lack of danger, with what steadfastness live he who does not trust in himself and does not believe his own thoughts, but in everything that concerns him places his hope in God and on those who are able to instruct him according to God. Thus also learn to conduct yourselves, O brethren, not to trust in yourself, not to believe whatever your thought tells you. Humility is good—in it lies repose and joy. Why should we crush ourselves in vain? We cannot be saved in any other way that this.
However, one might think: "If I do not have someone I can ask, what should I do?" It is true that if a person sincerely desires with all his heart to fulfill the will of God, God will never abandon him, but will instruct him in every way according to His will. In truth, if one directs his heart according to the will of God, God will enlighten even a small child to tell him His will. But if one does not sincerely wish to do the will of God, then though go to a prophet, God might place in the heart of that prophet an answer corresponding to the man's corrupt heart, as the Scripture says, And if a prophet should cause to err and should speak, I the Lord have caused that prophet to err (Ezekiel 14:9). Therefore we must direct ourselves with all our power towards the will of God and not believe our own heart. Even if a deed is good, and we should even hear from a holy man that it is indeed good, we should respect it as good, but we must not trust ourselves to actually perform it well, nor be sure that it will turn out well without fail. But we should fulfill it according to our strength and again relate how we are fulfilling it, and learn whether we have fulfilled it well or not. Then we must not remain careless, but await God's judgment, as the holy Abba Agathon said when he was asked, "Do you too fear, O father?" He replied, "I have done the will of God according to my strength, but I do not know whether my work is pleasing to God; for one is the judgment of God, and another the judgment of men." May the Lord God protect us from the misfortune that comes upon those who trust in themselves, and may He make us worthy to keep to the path of our Fathers who have pleased His name. For to Him belongs every glory, honor and worship unto the ages. Amen.