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Thursday, 22 September 2016

SAINT PAISIOS THE ATHONITE-On Spiritual Life in the Family

The practice of virtue within the family


—Elder, how can a husband become practiced in the virtues?

—God will give him opportunities. Many men, however, after asking God to give them opportunities to practice the virtues, grumble when they are faced with a certain difficulty. For example, sometimes the Good God, in His boundless love, and in order to provide practice in humility and patience, will take away his Grace from the wife, and she will begin acting outlandishly and treating the husband inconsiderately. Then the husband should not complain, but rather rejoice and thank God for the opportunity to struggle which He has given him. Or, a mother asks God to grant her patience. Her little child then comes in, and as soon as she has the table set for dinner, he pulls on the table cloth and everything spills on the floor. At such times it’s as if the child is saying to his mother: “Mama, be patient!”

In general, the difficulties which exist today in the world force those who desire to live a little spiritual life to be watchful. Just as, may God protect us, in a war the people are in a watchful state, I see the same thing happening now with whomever strives to live spiritually. Look how tough the poor children have it who are close to the Church! But the war, which exists because of the terrible environment in which they live, helps them, in a way, to stay awake. You see, in times of peace, when there are no difficulties, the majority of people slack off. Instead, they should utilize such serenity for spiritual growth—to cut off their shortcomings and cultivate the virtues.

Silence greatly helps in spiritual life. It is good for one to practice silence for about an hour a day: to test himself, to acknowledge his passions and to fight in order to cut them off and purify his heart. It is very good if there is a quiet room in the house which gives him the feeling of a monastic cell. There, “in secret” [4], he is able to do his spiritual maintenance, to study, and to pray. A little spiritual study done before prayer helps greatly. The soul warms up and the mind is transported to the spiritual realm. That’s why, when a person has many distractions during the day, he should rejoice if he has ten minutes for prayer, or even two minutes to read something, so as to drive away distractions.

—Elder, is this perhaps too difficult for someone living in the world?

—No, there are laymen who live very spiritually—even like ascetics—with their fasting, their services, their prayer ropes, their prostrations—even with children and grandchildren. On Sunday they go to church, receive Holy Communion, and then return home again to their “cell,” just like the hermits who go to the Kyriakon [5] on Sunday, and afterwards keep silence in their cells. Glory to God! There are many such souls in the world. As a matter of fact, I know a certain family man who says the Jesus prayer unceasingly, wherever he is, and has continuous tears at prayer. His prayer has become self-activating, and his tears are sweet; they are tears of divine rejoicing. I also remember a certain worker on the Holy Mountain—Yanni was his name—who worked very hard, doing the work of two men. I had advised him to start saying the Jesus Prayer while working, and slowly but surely he grew accustomed to it. He came to me once and told me that he felt great joy when he said the prayer. “‘Dawn is breaking,’” I told him. Soon after I learned he had been killed by two drunks. How saddened I was! A few days later a certain monk was looking for a tool, but he couldn’t find it because Yanni had put it somewhere. That evening Yanni appeared to him in his sleep and told him where he had left it. He had attained such a spiritual state that enabled him to help others from the life hereafter.

How simple spiritual life is! If one loves God, if he acknowledges His great Sacrifice and benefactions and if he forces himself with discernment in imitating the Saints, he will quickly become holy. He attains humility and an understanding of his own wretchedness and his tremendous ungratefulness to God. 

Prayer in the family

—Elder, should the entire family do compline together at night? [6]

—The older family members should motivate the youngsters with their solemnity. They should do compline and say to the small children: “If you want, stay a little while.” When the children are somewhat bigger they can have a rule—for example, fifteen minutes for the older ones, and two to five minutes for the small children—then after their rule, as much as they want. If the parents make them stay for all of compline they’ll resent it. Parents shouldn’t pressure their children because they don’t yet understand the power and value of prayer. Parents, you could say, are able to eat beans and meat: hearty food. But when a little child is still only drinking milk, should they tell him to eat meat because it is strengthening? Maybe it is more strengthening, but the poor thing can’t even digest it. That’s why starting out they should give him little pieces of meat and broth, so that he’ll want more.

—Elder, sometimes even the adults are so tired in the evening that they aren’t able to do compline.

—When adults are very tired or sick they should say half of the compline or at least one “Our Father.” They should not completely bypass prayer. In wartime if you end up on a hill in the evening, surrounded by enemies, you let out a few shots to frighten the enemy, so they will not attack. Adults should also let out a few shots so as to scare the little demons away.

Prayer has great power within the family. I know two siblings who not only kept their parents—who had a big problem between them—from separating, but even caused them to be more in love. With us my father said: “You don’t know what you’re going to do; two times a day you must entrust the future to God, so as to know where you’ll end up.” Each morning and evening we would all pray together before the icons, father, mother and the children, ending with a prostration before the icon of Christ. When a problem arose in the family we would pray and it would clear up. I remember once, when our youngest brother got sick and my father said: “Come, let’s beg God to make him well or to take him, so that he won’t suffer anymore.” We all prayed together and he recovered.

Even at the table, we all sat together. First we prayed and then we would begin eating. If someone started to eat before the food was blessed we would say “he fornicated.” We considered a failure to remain temperate fornication. It destroys a family if each person comes home, at whatever hour he wants, and eats alone without reason.

Children and the spiritual life

Elder, if a mother gives holy water to her child and he spits it out, what should she do?

—She should pray for her child. Maybe the way in which she gives the holy water to her child causes a reaction. For the child to be on the path of God the parents must also live right spiritually. Some parents who are religious strive to help their children to become good, not because they are concerned for the salvation of their souls, but because they what to have good children. In other words, they are more worried about what people will say about their child instead of whether they might go to hell. So how can God help? The aim is not for children to go to church through compulsion, but to love the church; not to do good through compulsion, but to feel the need to do good. The holy lives of parents instruct the souls of their children and they naturally follow. In this way they grow up piously, with health of both soul and body and without spiritual injuries. If parents force their children out of fear of God, He helps and the child is benefited. If, however, they do it out of egoism, then God does not help. Children are often troubled because of their parent’s pride. 

—Elder, some mothers ask us what prayer should a child of three or four years old do?

—You should tell them: “You are the mother; see how much your child can handle.” They shouldn’t give them a rule. 

—Elder, what if the little children get tired when their parents bring them here for vigils? [7]

—During Orthros they should let them out a little to relax, and during Divine Liturgy bring them back into the church.

Without forcing their children mothers must teach them to pray. Villagers in Cappadocia* intensely lived the ascetic tradition. They would take their children to hermitages, do prostrations and pray with tears, and in this way, the children learned how to pray. Chetes [8] would sometimes go by night to rob them; and when passing the chapels they would hear crying and stop in surprise. “OK, what’s going on?” they would say. “During the day they are all smiles and at night they cry?” They couldn’t understand what was going on.

Miracles happen through the prayers of small children. Whatever they ask of God He gives them because they are guileless and He hears their pure prayer. I remember one time our parents had gone out into the field and had left me in the house with my two younger siblings. The sky suddenly darkened and a torrential rainstorm began. “What will our parents do now?,” we said. “How will they get back home?” The two little ones began crying. “Come here,” I told them, “we will ask Christ to stop the rain.” The three of us knelt down before the family’s icons and prayed. In just a few minutes the rain stopped.

Parents must use discernment to help their children draw near to Christ from their early years, and from their childhood to live the joy on high—spiritual joy. When they start school they should learn, little by little, to read spiritual books to help themselves live spiritually. In this way they will become little angels, and their prayers will have greater boldness before God. Such children are spiritual heads of the home. The lives of saints especially help small children in their spiritual lives. As a small boy I found a little book of the lives of saints which they had back in those days. I went out into the forest to read and pray. I was flying with joy. From the age of ten to sixteen, when the Greek-Italian war began, I lived the spiritual life without restraint. Childhood joys are pure; they leave an imprint on a person that greatly affects him when he grows up. If children live spiritually they will live joyfully in this life, and in the next they will rejoice eternally with Christ. 

Temptations on feast days

—Elder, why do temptations often occur on feast days?

—Don’t you know? On feast days, Christ, the Panagia, and the Saints are joyful. They treat people, giving blessings and spiritual gifts. If parents give gifts when their children celebrate their namedays and kings release prisoners when a prince is born, why shouldn’t the Saints care for us on special occasions, too? Certainly the joy they give greatly endures and our souls are greatly helped. Knowing this the devil creates temptations in order to deprive people of the Divine gifts: they neither rejoice nor benefit from the feast. Sometimes you even see when a family is preparing to commune on a feast day, that the devil will send them a temptation to fight and then not only do they not commune, but they don’t even go to church! That’s how the little demon does it, so as to be deprived of all Divine help.

The same thing can be seen in our own monastic life. Many times the little demon—tempter that he is, because he knows from experience that we will be spiritually helped on some feast—will, beginning on the eve of the feast, create an atmosphere of temptation. For example, he might get us to quarrel with another brother, and then afterwards torment us in order to overpower us both spiritually and bodily. In this way he doesn’t allow us to benefit from the feast, with its joyous atmosphere of doxology. But the Good God helps us when He sees that we had not given occasion, but that this happened only by the envy of the evil one. And God helps us even more when we humbly reproach ourselves, blaming neither our brother nor even the devil, who hates everything good. For his work is this: to create scandals and spread evil—while man, as the image of God, should spread peace and goodness.

An excerpt from the book Family Life (Vol 4), by Elder Paisios the Athonite
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