When I was studying secular sciences, at first they seemed to me extremely difficult, and when I would come to take up a book, I would be in the same state as a man about to touch a wild beast. But when I continued to force myself, God helped me, and diligence became in me such a habit that from zeal for reading I would not notice what I ate or what I drank or how I slept. And I never allowed myself to be enticed to dinner by any of my friends, nor did I even enter into conversation with them while I was reading, although I was sociable and loved my comrades. When the philosopher would dismiss us, I would wash myself with water, for I became dry from the immoderate reading and had need to refresh myself with water every day. Coming home, I did not know what I would eat, for I had no time to even prepare my own food, but I had a loyal man who cooked what he wanted for me. I ate what I found prepared, having a book beside me on the couch, and often I would become absorbed in it. Likewise at the time of sleeping it would be beside me on my table, and having fallen asleep for a little, I would suddenly jump up in order to continue reading. Again in the evening, when I would return home, after Vespers, I would light a lamp and continue reading till midnight, and in general I was in such a state from reading that I knew not at all the sweetness of repose.
When I entered the monastery I therefore said to myself, "If while studying superficial philosophy the practice of reading had generated within me such desire and zeal, and it had developed into a habit for me, then I should be even more zealous in the study of virtue." I drew much strength and zeal from this example. And so if one wishes to acquire virtue, he should not be careless and distracted. For just as one who studies carpentry does not take up some other craft, so also those who wish to study spiritual work should be concerned with nothing else, but should study its acquisition day and night. Otherwise those who undertake this work not only will make no progress, but they will distress themselves, senselessly troubling themselves. For he who is not attentive to himself and does not labor is easily drawn away from virtue, because virtue is the mean, the royal path of which one elder (Abba Benjamin) spoke: "Go by the royal path and count the miles." And so virtue, as I have said, is a medium between excess and lack. Therefore it is also said in the scripture, Ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left, but go by the royal path (Deut. 5:32). And St. Basil says, "He is upright of heart whose thought is inclined neither to excess nor to lack, but is directed only toward the mean of virtue."
Evil is nothing in and of itself, for it is not some sort of entity, nor has it any content. But the soul that declines virtue becomes passionate and gives birth to sin, and therefore languishes in sin, not finding in it any natural repose. And does a tree have worms in it by nature? No, but when it begins to rot, this rottenness engenders worms, and these same worms devour the tree. So does metal also produce rust, whereupon it itself is eaten away by rust. And clothes themselves produce the moth, which then eats and ruins the clothing. It is this way with the soul—it engenders evil, which previously had no existence, nor any content, as I have said, and the soul itself is in turn tortured by the evil. As St. Gregory has well said, "Fire is generated by matter and it consumes matter as evil consumes those who are evil." We see the same activity in diseases of the body: when someone lives a disorderly life and does not take care of his health, there occurs an excess or deficiency of something in the body which makes a man sick; whereas this disease did not previously exist at all, it was never something self-perpetuating, and after the body is healed the disease again no longer exists. In precisely the same way, evil is also the infirmity of a soul deprived of its characteristic, natural health, which is virtue.
And this is why we have said that virtue is a mean: thus courage is to be found between fear and impudence; humility of wisdom is between pride and man-pleasing; reverence is between shame and shamelessness; and so on with the other virtues. So when a man has become worthy to acquire these virtues, he is well-pleasing before God, and although everyone sees that he eats, drinks and sleeps just like other men, still he is pleasing to God for the virtues he possesses. But he who is not attentive to himself and does not guard himself is easily turned away from this path either to the right or to the left, that is, to either excess or deficiency, and he engenders that infirmity which is evil. So we have discussed the royal path by which all the saints have travelled.
The miles are the various attitudes which every individual must always count and continually note: where is he, what milestone has he reached, what is his current frame of mind? We are like people who, having set out for the Holy City of Jerusalem, and having left their own cities, might go five miles and stop, while others go ten miles, some make half the journey, and others have not even travelled the path at all, but having left their own city, sit outside the gates amidst its stinking waste dumps. Some of those who are on the way might go two miles and those their way, then return, or, having travelled two miles forward they then go five backward. Others come to the city itself but stop just outside of it, without entering the city itself. The same thing happens with us—for some of us have left the world and entered the monastery with the intention of acquiring virtue, and some have done a little and then stopped; others have done more, and still others have done half of the work and then stopped; some have not done anything at all, but thinking that they have left the world they remain in their worldly passions and their foul odor. Others have done a little good but then destroy it; and some even devastate more than what they have accomplished. Others, while they have performed virtues still have pride and belittle their neighbor, and therefore they have not entered into the city but remain outside of it. These as a result have also failed to achieved their goal, for although they have arrived at the very gates of the city, they remain outside of it, and thus have not fulfilled their intention. And so each of us should consider where he is—has he left his own city but stopped outside the gates in its stinking waste dumps, has he gone a little way, or a great distance; has he reached the middle of his journey; or is he going two miles forward and then two back; has he come to the city and entered into Jerusalem; or, although he has reached the city he was not able to enter it. Let everyone examine his own state to see where he is.
There are three attitudes of soul in a man: Either he acts according to passion, he opposes passion, or he uproots it. He acts according to passion who fulfills it and satisfies it. He opposes passion who does not act according to it, neither does he not cut it off, but struggles so that the passion might pass; nonetheless he still has it within himself. And he uproots passion who labors and does what is opposed to the passion. But these three attitudes have a very broad application. For example, name whatever passion you wish, and we will examine it. Do you wish us to speak of pride? Do you wish us to speak of fornication, or would you rather that we spoke of vainglory? For we are quite conquered by vainglory. Because of vainglory a man cannot bear to hear a word from his brother. When one person hears a single word, he becomes upset or answers five or ten words to his brother's one, and becomes hostile and bitter. When the quarrel is ended he continues to have thoughts against the one who said it to him, he remembers the insult and regrets that he did not say more than he did in reply. He conjures to himself ever stronger words to tell him later. He repeats to himself, "Why didn't I say this or that to him, why did he say that to me, and I will tell him such and such," and he continues to be angry. This is one attitude. This means that evil has been converted into habit. May God deliver us from such an attitude for it unfailingly leads to torments—for every sin which is fulfilled in deed leads to hell, and although such a man might desire to repent, he alone cannot conquer passions unless he receives help from some saints as the fathers have also said. This is why I constantly say to you: Strive to cut off the passions before they become a habit in you. One person hears an offensive word, and although he is disturbed and returns five or ten words to the one, regretful that he did not say three other stronger ones, grieves and remembers the wrong—nevertheless he has a change of heart after a few days. Another spends a week in a like state and then changes; and still another changes within a day. One person is offended, quarrels, becomes disturbed and disturbs others, but is then immediately converted. So you see how many different attitudes there are! However, all these people are subject to hell as long as they fulfill their passions.
Let us speak now of those who oppose the passions. One person when he hears a word is saddened, not because he has been offended, but because he did not bear this offense: this person is in the state of those who are laboring and opposing the passions. Another person is laboring and struggling in asceticism, but at last he is conquered by the compulsion of passion. Yet another wishes to reply in an offensive way, but avoids this because of habit. Another one strives not to say anything at all offensive, but he grieves at being reproached; however he condemns himself and repents that he grieves. Yet another is not embittered by the offense, but he also does not rejoice over it. These are the kinds of people who oppose the passions. However, two of them are to be distinguished from the rest—those who are conquered amidst the struggle and those who are attracted to a passion by habit and are thereby threatened with falling into the same danger as those who act according to passions. I have included them among those who are opposing the passions, for by their good intention they have stopped the passion and do not wish to act according to it, but they are also saddened and continue to struggle. The Fathers have said, that anything that goes against the soul's own desire cannot not last long. But these people must test themselves in order to see whether they do not perform, if not the passion itself, then something which arouses passion, which is why they are conquered or attracted by it. There are also those who strive to stop the passion, but only by instilling another passion: one person is silent because of vainglory, another because of man-pleasing, or from some other kind of passion. Such people want to heal evil by means of evil. But Abba Poemen said that evil can in no way uproot evil. These people are among those who act according to passion, although they succeed in deceiving even themselves.
Finally we would like to speak of those who are uprooting passion. One rejoices when he is offended, but this is because he has in view the reward. He belongs to those who are uprooting passion, but not with understanding. Another rejoices when he receives offense—he considers that he should have endured this offense because he himself gave occasion for this: he is uprooting passion with understanding. To receive offence, to lay the blame upon oneself and consider everything which comes against us as our own is a work of understanding, because everyone who prays to God, "Lord, grant me humility," should know that he is entreating God to send him someone to offend him. Therefore, when someone offends him he himself should reproach himself and belittle himself mentally, so that at that time when another is humbling him from outside, he himself has humbled himself from within. Yet another not only rejoices when he is offended and considers himself to be guilty, but he also is sorry for the disturbance of the one who offends him. May God lead us to such an attitude.
Do you see how broad are these three attitudes? And so let each of us examine, as I have said, which state he is in. Does he willingly act according to passion and satisfy it? Or, not desiring to act according to it, is he conquered by it? Or is he drawn into acting according to his passion by habit, and having committed the act, does he grieve and repent that he acted in this way? Or does he labor with understanding to cut off the passion? Or does he labor against one passion for the sake of another, as in the case we have mentioned of someone who is silent out of vainglory, or man-pleasing, or in general out of some human considerations? Or has he begun to uproot passion, and is he uprooting it with understanding and doing what is contrary to the passion? Let everyone find out where he is, at which stage. For we should test ourselves not only every day, but also every year and every month and every week and say, "Last week this passion troubled me very much, but now what sort am I?" Likewise every year one should ask himself: "Last year I was so conquered by this passion, and now what sort am I?" Thus we should always test ourselves to see whether we have succeeded some little bit, or whether we are in the same state as we were before, or whether we have fallen to something worse. May God grant us strength, so that even if we have not succeeded in uprooting passions, then at least we have not acted according to them and have contested against them. For in truth it is a serious matter to act according to passion and not offer some opposition to it. I will draw a comparison for you of one who acts according to passion and satisfies it. He is like a man whose enemy is shooting arrows at him, and he takes those arrows and pierces his own heart with them. A man who fights against passion is like one who is showered with arrows by his enemy but, but is not wounded because he is clothed with armor. But he who is uprooting passion is like one who, being showered with arrows by his enemy, breaks them or returns them to the hearts of his enemies as is said in the psalms: Let their sword enter into their own hearts, and let their bows be broken (Ps. 36:15).
And so let us also strive, O brethren, even if we cannot return their own weapons into their own hearts, then let us at least not receive the arrows and not pierce our own hearts with them; but let us be clothed in armor so as not to be wounded by them. May the good God protect us from them, may He grant us heedfulness and instruct us on His path, for to Him belongs glory, honor and worship unto the ages. Amen.