митрополит Антоний Су́рожский (Блум)

St Ioannikios The Great

Newsletter N. 181, December, 1985

17 November 1985

In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

It is not in vain that God reveals to us the saintliness and the greatness of some of those who have been heroes of the spirit; many more probably rest in the glory of God. But some are revealed to us to teach us something which we need. Today the Church is remembering a Saint whose name probably means nothing to practically all of us: St. Ioannikios the Great, who lived in the 8th century. I want to mention only one feature, one moment of his life that was decisive and which was, I believe, what we must learn from him. He was born in Bythinia, became a soldier and then retired to his native village; a simple man, illiterate, without what we would call education. He went to church, listened to the reading, took in what he could, until one day a word spoken in St. Paul's Epistle reached him. It hit him at the core of his being, as a thing that made sense completely, perfectly. These words were, «Pray unceasingly.»

He came out of the church, never returned to his hut, but went into Mount Olympus that was nearby, and decided that what he had heard, not with his ears, but with the whole of his being, was God's calling, and if God called, He would also give the strength, the understanding and the help he needed. He knew only one prayer: it was the Lord's Prayer. And so he set out to read this prayer, slowly, attentively, bringing every clause of this prayer, every word of it into his heart, doing all he could to identify with the prayer he was offering. And in the course of the day things went well; he was used to the life of hardship. He collected berries, he ate what he could, he prayed. And then the night came; a night full of fear, of darkness, of sounds to which he was not accustomed in the bushes and around him...

Years later he met another man of the spirit. He had then grown to the full stature that was his, he was a man of prayer; he had become (?) prayer, and he was like a beacon of fire before God. And the man said to him, «Who taught you, Father, to pray as you do?» And Ioannikios looked at him, and said, «I will give you an answer, because I think you will understand it; it is the demons that taught me how to pray unceasingly.» And then he went on to explain that after the first day, when night came and fear came upon him, he felt so totally helpless, so hopelessly devoid of protection. He sat surrounded by unknown dangers and filled with fear, and he could no longer say the Lord's prayer, it was too much for him; all he could say was, «Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!» And he cried this way throughout the night, out of his terror, and when the day came and he began to look about, he knew that all around him danger lurked. When he looked for berries, he knew that in the same bushes might be one of those beasts which he had heard during the night. And so he went on walking in the forest, looking round, trying to find security and comfort in this cry: Lord, Jesus Christ! Son of God! Have mercy on me! ... Then the night came, and he cried all the more. And so, day after day, night after night, he cried.

Quite soon he discovered that he could manage his fear of the physical dangers that surrounded him, but then other dangers appeared; he became aware of all the evil that lurked in his own heart, of the dividedness of his mind, of the waverings of his will, of his desires of his body – of all that came from within. And when he fought, he discovered that there were powers, dark and evil powers, that made use of all that was weakness and imperfection in him to destroy him from within. And all the more he cried in the same words – until one day he found peace. This is why he had said that it was the devils, it was evil that was within him, it was the terror that was around him that taught him to pray unceasingly; not as an act of will, but as a necessity, as a cry of all his being for safety – and then for salvation.

Now, we may ask ourselves: Why it is that we are not prompted in the same manner? Partly, because we are not surrounded by danger; there is nothing around us that would make us cry for help against things which we feel we cannot master. We do not feel helpless, we feel strong, we feel secure, we feel protected; and also for another reason: because we are so little aware of the danger which is within us, of all the imperfection and the destructive evil which i s within us. I remember one of the spiritual writers speaking of this struggle against passions – against evil; and one of his audience said to him, «Why is it that I perceive none of it? I do not feel that evil is attacking me, that temptation is after me – what is the difference between the saints and us?» And this spiritual writer said, «Because evil has no need to pursue you; you are pursuing all that evokes, awakens passion in you; why should evil attack you, when all you do is to look for an occasion to enslave yourself to it?»

Let us give a little thought to this, both to St Ioannikios and to this saying. Why is it that we are so secure? Materially, of course, it is simple to understand; but spiritually? Is it because we never dare the enemy, we never fight to the death against any form of evil which is within us? Is it because we imagine that evil is only pain, and suffering, and distress around us from which we are shielded?

Let us reflect on this, because our vocation as Christians is to be warriors, to defeat evil within our heart and install Christ as the King of our life. The Kingdom of God begins within us. As long as we are possessed by everything which sways us in all directions, why should evil manifest itself in its true form with its true colours? It is only when we will have undertaken the good fight to conquer our whole personality to holiness, make it all in our bodies, in our souls, in our minds, in everything in us to be, as it were, an extension of the incarnate presence of Christ, a place where the Holy Spirit lives, make us partakers of God's own purpose and life that we will enter into this struggle. But in this struggle we must remember the words of Christ: 'Fear not! I have conquered the world...' We can conquer because the Cross is not only a sign of human hatred against God; it is the sign of God's own victory through a love that can transcend sufferings rejection and death itself. Amen.

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