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Putting others first

July 29, 2010

recorded conversations with

Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain

“If we justify ourselves it means we are highly conceited.”

“A person receives not by getting but by giving.”

Elder Paisios

Recorded Conversation with Elder Paisios[1].

Love, the Joy of Giving, Faith and the Self-destruction of Evil

Father Paisios: If someone wants to ask something at this moment, because you really wanted to hear something from the Elder … well, just ask. This is all within the signs of the times: for me to tell you spiritual things…

Questioner: St. John the Divine says that we often say that we love God, yet we don’t get on well with our brothers. We cannot show patience, we cannot tolerate them, we avoid them for our own peace and quiet and so on. Since this is a reality, how can we start and what can we do?

Elder Paisios: They are two different things. Whoever loves God also loves his neighbour. However, when he doesn’t love his neighbour and says that he loves God, he (actually) loves himself. When a monk doesn’t see anybody, he sees many people.

When you give

It’s different when you consider the subject: Should you give or should you receive? I don’t know if I made myself understood. Yes, there is a difference between the two. A person receives not by getting but by giving. For example, let’s suppose, he gives a thing, a material thing. In giving that he gives a material thing, yet receives spiritual joy. The other one gets some human pleasure by receiving the material thing. That’s to say; by giving the person who gives something material receives something in spiritual life.[2]

Sacrifice and joy

Let’s say, a mother makes sacrifices for her child. How much sacrifice does she make doing this? She goes without eating and doesn’t get tired. She receives joy from her children when she sees that they are healthy, well-fed and clean. She doesn’t get tired or feel anything else even if she hasn’t eaten herself, because she becomes rich by giving, yes, she becomes rich! Conversely, by receiving she gets only a material thing.

I said the same thing yesterday, and gave an example from my own life. I see certain young people that I’ve helped since they were little. They come to my cell and ask if they can be of assistance, if they can help me in some way, to bring me some wood. And somehow it seems wrong to me – for whoever it is, young or old – to make them work for me, to compel them. I prefer to go out at night with a flashlight and bring a bit of wood, or whatever I need, if I don’t manage it in the day.  Anyway, some people suffer. They want to help you; they want to do something. Seeing that they are troubled I say:

“Well, young man, go and get me two boxes of matches.”

Toil and Rest

As soon as I say that he’ll run off with such joy!  So, he goes, sweats a little, and comes back, even though I had three or four lighters and I didn’t need matches, but I did it for the lad. That’s why I said it, so that he would be happy. So, he had a rest by making an effort, with toil he rested.

However, in contrast, I see other young people who won’t make an effort. Sometimes an elderly man will forget a bag, a hat or something else there and I say:

“Hey young lad, just run a bit and catch up with that little old man over there; he’s forgotten his bag.”

He sighs deeply… as soon as I say it he heaves a sigh.

“I’m not going to go back, Father,” he says to me.

“Come on son! That man’s going to Karyes [the capital of Mount Athos] now. How’s he going to go downhill again? He’ll get tired.”

Well, as soon as he heard it; he got tired! He got tired just by hearing about it! Let alone running after him! Whereas the other lad immediately ran off filled with happiness. Those people get tired with resting, whereas the others have a rest while getting tired.  Since, the heart never gets tired and whatever a person does they should do it with their heart.

Radiation

Questioner: There was an accident recently which let off some radiation and everybody is worried about it. Naturally, it’s bothered us Christians too. We are not worried by it, but it has brought us closer to the Scriptures. Even people who make a point of not opening the Bible are looking at what it says. “Do you perhaps have the Book of Revelation so we can look at what’s happened and what’s happening and what it says?” What can a Christian say in such circumstances to help those people, who are asking to learn about, simply from fear or curiosity? Besides everybody has been disturbed by this event and they are all looking to see if this is written about in the Bible, in Revelations. Is it the beginning of the end? There is some commotion. How can we help those people? So that we can be helped ourselves!

Father Paisios: By reading the Holy Scriptures, we’ll form, let’s say, an opinion. Yet, however much we talk about it we won’t be helped. However, what will help in a positive way is our Christian faith, I mean, the faith of us believers. That poor person is right, let’s suppose. Yet, we as faithful Christians what are we doing? Yet what did Christ say? He gave us authority, it says, to tread upon snakes and scorpions[3]. He also said we would not be harmed by anything deadly.

I have in mind people – I’ve heard about in the past few days – who go out for just a bit and immediately change their clothes in case they’ve become radiated and make their life a real torment!

Hey, you, be strong, my son, you are a Christian, you are chrismated, baptised, you have Communion, you do so many things … The Gospel says so many things. We’ve read it, we’ve learnt its sayings by heart. Yet, while Christ gave us such authority, we are scared. The Grace of God has such power and we should ask for Christ’s power by signing ourselves with the sign of the cross. Because when we sign ourselves with the cross it’s not just a cross we are making. We are venerating the saving Passion and we are asking for the power of Christ’s death by crucifixion. It’s simple!

So, there is no fear for Christians. I’m not saying that you should go and eat such lettuces (covered with poisonous pesticides) yourselves. You and each person should act according to faith. However, you must believe like a Christian. Not provocatively. Later they may use other chemicals, and then what will happen, let us suppose?

When this happens the believer has yet one more reason not to be afraid. These events force us to become even more faithful; mainly, because we’ll have even more difficulties later. However, there are no difficulties for a Christian. A Christian shouldn’t be afraid even if they throw him in a furnace. How many martyrs were thrown into a furnace, they suffered such torments and yet nothing happened to them! That’s yet another reason not to be afraid. Because, who knows?

It seems that the vials of the Apocalypse will start to be opened. Well… the angels won’t throw them there, and then there will be the war of the stars.  In which case God who is good won’t leave us; He will protect us.

Grace is a shield.

As I was saying, when a Christian is close to God he has no other need of protection; he is in no danger at all. However, he must believe. This is yet another reason now why we should become better, in order to have the grace of God and when a person has God’s grace he’s not afraid of anything. Is he going to be afraid of those things? These things are nothing in comparison to what the holy martyrs underwent and they weren’t harmed. Since Christ said it Himself! Does Christ tell lies? “Even if you drink poison it will become holy water.”[4] And “you will tread on serpents and scorpions”[5] But look at us! Do we do that? How can you put it? Despite being aware of this and knowing it, all the same, we are scared! That’s why I say it’s not so beneficial to read from the Apocalypse or even to learn it by heart, if you want. Faith is what is needed!

A little old father that I knew – he died years ago now – had such simplicity he didn’t even know if the Gospel was a book! He was a monk. He could handle poisonous snakes. There were three fathers at that Cell: a priest with his brother according to the flesh and the little old monk, called Pachomios. He could pick up snakes – there were lots of them in that area – and he grabbed them and threw them out. It was quite damp there and there hazelnut tress so there were also lots of snakes there too.

Well, one day he had picked up a very large snake. His Elder had sent him to the other side on an errand. He found a great big snake. He was in a hurry, so in order to get it out of the hedge he tied it around his waist like a belt, then he went and finished his work and threw the snake out later. As soon as another old man saw him he said:

“Get out of here, father, you fool! What’s going on over there?”

“The little old father was bewildered and thought to himself “Why’s he so afraid?” Afterwards he came and saw me and said:

Faith

“I don’t know Elder Paisios why he’s so afraid of snakes? Why are they so afraid? Our own Father Andreas is even afraid of scorpions! I gather then the wall so they won’t come out one by one. I put them in the palm of my hand and I throw them out”

I said to him:

“Why don’t they harm you Elder Pachomios?”

“Well, Jesus Christ writes on a bit of paper somewhere that if you have faith you can pick up snakes and scorpions and they won’t bother you.”

Do you see what Elder Pachomios says “Jesus Christ writes on a bit of paper…?” Now what do we do? Now then, we all know this in writing and historically and we even know the whole Gospel, but faith? Do we have faith?

Yes, yes, yes, the basis of the whole thing is here – in faith not in dry knowledge.

Snake in a well.

Following on, somewhere in the Sayings of the Fathers (Gerontikon) – you’ll have read it and you’ll know it better than I do, because I can’t quite remember it at this moment – in that book it talks about how a disciple went to fetch water and saw a great big snake in the well who was drinking the water there. He left without drawing water; he was terrified.

“Hey, Elder, we’ll be poisoned” he said to his Elder. “The snake was in the water!”

So the Elder went, he made the sign of the cross over the spring and drew water. Then he said:

“If all the snakes went into the springs everybody would die of thirst afterwards. Is that what we are going to do?” He said to him, “Since Christ gave us such power, we make the sign of the cross and we drink.”

Because the sign of the Cross isn’t what you think. Because as I said, when we Christians make the sign of the Cross, we are venerating the saving Passion of the Lord. Don’t listen to what the Jehovah’s Witnesses say: “What is that? An image? A symbol? A instrument of murder?” They speak so much nonsense.

And when they see us the faithful doing things like going out for a bit and then changing our clothes out of fear, well what can those poor people say? Where is our faith?

Giving an example.

What will help them the most is our own Christian example and Christian life. However, whether we want to or not we must become much better. Events force us to come closer to God so that we can have divine power and face up to every situation. If someone is afraid, let him wash his clothes five or ten times. If he is even more afraid, let him do it twenty or thirty times. Accordingly. If someone is not afraid, if he believes, let him make the sign of the cross and wear the same clothes.

I ate some lettuces over there (I didn’t know that someone and watered them with copper sulphate together with the onions) and I didn’t have my glasses with me and I ate them with those chemicals on them and with the radioactivity, too. And he came the next day and says to me:

“Oh, I forgot to tell you that I’d sprinkled them with that stuff…”

Without asking me he went and sprinkled the stuff.

“It doesn’t matter” I say.

We must know that the faithful, all those who keep God’s commandments, those people, how can I put it, receive God’s grace and God is obliged to help them in difficult circumstances and in difficult times.

More faithful.

Christians now are forced to be more faithful, whether they want to or not, because the goats have become wild and are beating up the sheep of Christ in a vicious way. The sheep of Christ are looking for a good herder. They want also want to find a herd that only contains sheep. Then they’ll become the one flock of one shepherd.

“Always do more than is asked of you”.

Elder Paisios

“Through the Cross Christ was justified and became the Lord of Glory”

“Evil is destroyed by itself”

Elder Paisios

How we can Help the Elderly and the Departed

Questioner: When we see a very elderly person, whether they are simply old or also sick as well, who is not close to Christ, what happens? Can we help at all? And if we can help, how can we help?

Father Paisios:

Now, if they are old and have humility they can be helped with a few words. If they can’t hear words then they are entitled to divine help. However, when the elderly person suffers from egotism, and won’t accept, let’s say, advice and if you start acting like a teacher you’ll fire up his ego. Much more prayer is needed there.

Divine help.

Anyway, I know one thing for sure, when a person has a good disposition but hasn’t been helped in life, he is entitled to divine help. God will arrange things in such a way that he will be saved. With an earthquake, a lightning-bolt, a flood, in some way or another, with a wolf, with an illness, he’ll take him at the most appropriate hour. Often a saint or an angel can appear even though someone isn’t really entitled, let’s say, to such a great blessing. However, Christ will even do that because He uses every means available.

The Devil’s Suggestions.

However, quite often what happens with those people who get such divine help? A moment comes that is enough to fool them. That’s why many of them become unstuck. While God, in such situations, as I said, uses every means so that even an angel or a saint turns up to help them; the devil starts to murmur in their ear.

“Ah, God wants you for great things; He wants you to save the world…!”

And the wretch doesn’t say “My God, how can I save the world from afar? I’m not worthy of such a thing?”

Instead of being contrite he starts to have proud thoughts from then on. Sometimes the devil comes in the form of an angel or saint and says “You will save the universe!”

However, again, God who is good helps the elderly person repent when he or she eventually recovers. That’s why when he falls he should be helped by relatives or other people.

Compassionate Sinners.

This is what will tell you if someone is worthy of God’s help. When you see w person who may well lead a sinful life, who doesn’t go to church, who doesn’t pray and so on, yet they have a good disposition. You see for example that he or she feels for others. He sees a person sick with heart trouble, or a poor person and he helps him, he feels for him, let’s say. From that you’ll recognize that God will not abandon him. He is entitled to divine help.

Hard-hearted people.

When you see a person who is distant from God and who is also hard, uncaring, heartless and so on, then you should pray day and night for God to have a lot of mercy.

The departed.

Again, for those who have ‘fallen asleep’ it’s good, especially when thinking of a relative or forefathers, who was a little harsh, who didn’t do acts of kindness and died unrepentant and so, it’s good to do acts of kindness on their behalf. You can help orphans, widows and say it is “for the soul of so and so”. So that the other person on the receiving end of your charity will say a heartfelt prayer for the other person saying, “May God have mercy on him or her. May his bones become holy!” So, this helps a great deal.

The harsh old man.

I remember a particular incident.  I was once at a monastery and some relatives came there and told me about an incident:

There once was a grandfather (I knew about him from some small children). He had many orchards and his garden was full of almond trees. The children used to throw a few stones at them from time to time so they could eat fresh almonds. Even so, while he had so much land, he had more property than anyone, he was so stingy and so mean! He would even kill a child over an almond by throwing stones at them! He was that wicked! Ultimately, this old man died, and left a great inheritance to his children.

When his life was ebbing away – he had a two-storey house – his daughters looked after him in shifts, first one then the other. One of his daughters had a ten-year old child. The woman left the child alone with its grandfather. The child became terrified and started shouting, he ran out, beating himself “Grandpa’s been taken by the crows!” They all ran upstairs and found him dead. It seems that he had been taken by the demons who take away unrepentant souls.

Well, the poor child was in shock. A relative anxiously said to me:

“What can I do?”

“As far as possible,” I said “perform acts of kindness. He left you such an inheritance. Give for the sake of his soul and you should say “for his soul.” He left you such a large amount of property; you have so much property. Even if he didn’t leave you a thing simply for the sake of his harshness you ought to give charity. You are his children. Then the beneficiaries will say “May God forgive him, may his bones become holy!” That is prayer of the heart.

Curses.

It’s the same when a person who has been treated unfairly throws a curse, and the curse is realized when the other person treats them unfairly. It is wrong to curse others, despite the fact that the curses of those treated unfairly take hold. When you say to another person, “May he have a bad year! … May he be ruined!” then he will be ruined if he is guilty; if he’s to blame.

This is why St. Paul the Apostle says, “bless and don’t curse”. The wronged person curses because he was wronged. Within his heart, let’s suppose, he says this curse. In the same way the person who has benefitted from charity says “may his bones become holy!” He also says this within his heart. That’s why you should perform acts of kindness on behalf of your grandparents as far as possible.

The greatest act of remembrance.

The greatest act of remembrance, the greatest memorial service, is our own spiritual progress. When we advance spiritually they are helped threefold.

First, because they are entitled to divine help. When a grandchild or great grandchild advances spiritually the grandparents and great-grandparents become entitled to divine help, because if it wasn’t for them their grandchildren wouldn’t be alive. Of course, the prayer of the child and the grandchild is also beneficial to ancestors. But also the joy that the grandparents will feel, their “pride and joy” in their grandchildren- just this joy alone, the joy in the progress of their descendants is not a small thing. On the contrary, when we depart from God, they are sad and beat themselves up about it, the poor things, they suffer. For this reason, we should move closer to Christ as far as possible so that we can help them.

A good tradition.

How do we help? By doing good we bring about a good tradition. Just look at certain villages. You say “that earth produces good people!” It’s not the land, the earth, that produces good people it’s that some good people laid down a good pattern and now the good tradition continues.

I remember when I was a young carpenter in Epirus the marketplace was opposite. Some fellow-villager came and said, “Young lad, be careful, because some men have come from such and such a village.” They were all thieves in that village. They stole and then went and sold their stolen goods to the Albanians. They stole saddles, reins and bridles, ropes, whatever they could find.

A bad tradition.

They said that the earth was like that in that village. But it wasn’t the earth. The people had a bad tradition. Lots of work and effort is needed for such a bad tradition to disappear.

Quite the opposite, in one village a bit further up there were great big lads of 18-20 years old, and when you spoke to them they became red with embarrassment and bowed their heads down! Where would you find such behavior today! This good or bad tradition will continue, let’s suppose, for many years! We are obliged to work hard so that the good tradition prevails and the bad one is wiped out. Each and every one of us ought to work at this. We have no right, let’s say, neither for ourselves nor for others, to leave such a bad tradition in our wake.

Temptations and Limitations

Questioner: We hear that there are temptations that Christ gives to try good people, so that they can become better. There are also temptations that come from our own sin.  It doesn’t matter so  much if we can tell them apart, but what should our stance be towards the various temptations that we meet us or that we meet in life? Whether they are illnesses, or other kinds of distress.

Elder Paisios: Both for the person who thinks they are suffering without being to blame and the person who knows that they are being tried fairly, the most certain thing is that whatever happens to someone they should receive it with joy and feel that they are guilty. That’s the surest thing of all. It’s also what the holy fathers said. Whereas, there are also many people, as I’ve said, who are not to blame in anything, yet God allows them to have a hard time. God allowed this to comfort the others, who they are at fault, giving them the idea that even though they are at fault God arranged things in such a way so that they could be tested. Or rather, they send away, let’s suppose, the grace of God, with their error or fault and it is to be expected that temptation will come and create some situation or other. Yet, they don’t understand this thing and start grumbling against God. So, when they see another person who hasn’t done anything wrong having a hard time God gives them opportunity to appreciate this and understand saying “While I did wrong that poor person didn’t do anything wrong at all.”

However, the person who wasn’t at fault, yet still has a hard time never says it wasn’t my fault. He believes that he is guilty. The moment that he thinks that he didn’t do anything wrong, then he really is greatly in the wrong.

These are rare circumstances allowed by God. It’s like we sit exams so that we can go up a class. That’s why God allows the devils some freedom, up to a point, so that he can help us with his evil. He didn’t allow him in order to give us a hard time. God who is good made angels and some of the angels fell from their own pride and so became demons. Then God created his own perfect creation to replace the fallen order of angels.

Just look at the great blessing he gave to Adam and Eve to become co-creators. We talk about “our parents”, “our grandparents” and so on but they, through God’s love, are like co-creators and give us our body.

From the moment of a child’s conception the parents give it a body and God gives it a soul.  Then, as soon as the child is born and then baptized God also provides an angel. Then the child is protected by God, a guardian angel, and parents. The older a child gets, the more the parents become free in a way of their responsibilities. Then, when God takes the parents the guardian angel continues to protect the person just like God does too, from near and far.

Well, we see that many parents are continually worried. Even though there is a God who is looking after them and a guardian angel close by, they are completely unaware of this somehow, and live with such anxiety over their children, to the extent that they even become sick! And they’ll be believers too! Yet, while they believe, with this anxious manner, they get in the way of divine intervention.  Like there’s no God! Like there’s no Guardian Angel! Therefore, parents should do whatever they can for their children, but beyond that they should trust in God, so that they can become humble, lay their weapons down, their human concerns. Then God is obliged to help the children, when parents entrust their children to God.

Yet we tell children today something they cannot understand. Fine, the small children don’t understand it because they are still little. Their parents protected them when they were embryo’s in their mother’s womb. Later, when they got bigger, their mother put them in a cot with railings. Now the child wants to climb out of this and to be free! He does understand, though, that if he gets out he will hurt himself, drown in a ditch or something. However, the little child cannot understand this. Later, the parents, naturally, are like a good gardener who plants a tree and ties it to a stake surrounded by a fence, that the goats won’t eat it. Because if the goats get to it, that’s the end of it… It’ll give neither fruit nor shade! This is until its branches get big enough. When it branches out the gardener removes the fence. Then not only will the tree give fruit but will welcome goats, and sheep and people under its shade!

Children today protest. Fine, when they were young they couldn’t understand why they were shut up in a cot. But now they are older, let’s suppose. But even now they still need to be enclosed somehow, that is, set limits. They don’t understand these boundaries even much older children, even those studying for degrees and they look for freedom. What kind of freedom is that? Freedom to be destroyed? Can a tree that has been cut right down produce fruit? It will be truncated! That’s why young people should understand that this binding is not really a bind that’s somehow going to strangle the tree over there in the garden. It’s actually helping it grow up straight.  It’s fenced off, not to confine it – it’s cared for, looked after, all those things – but it’s closed in so that the goats won’t eat it.  That’s what children should understand, because if they are polluted once, they can’t become clean again.

But what do some children do? Just like the little calves that are tied up in the meadow and the landowner first takes it to one part of the field and then another and then another. So, the first part is cleaned, watered and new grass grows up and in turn all the parts of the meadow are grazed. But, all the time, the dim-witted calf in that meadow pulls at the stake just so that it can escape, let’s suppose. It’s looking for freedom. Yet, the landowner did this for its own good. Finally, the little calf, “I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to be here…” pulls at the stake, pulls it out altogether and starts running. It runs fast, because it has freed itself. And what’s the result? It strangles itself with the rope, or falls down a cliff, or is attacked by a dog…

That’s what certain lively children do, despite the fact that they don’t have the spiritual ability or strength to govern themselves. Afterwards, even if they have freedom, their freedom becomes a trap. Well… look at the freedom Europeans have… and the freedom that our children have who follow that European spirit. That’s what we’ve come to. I see young people come and visit me at my cell between the ages of 23 and 27, the poor things, destroyed by drugs, and all those sorts of things. Now the poor things are asking for help. I’ve helped one or two. Then one will bring his friend along, and the friend of a friend, and so on. Then maybe more will turn up seeking help from a monk. How many young people, let’s suppose, will have reached this precipice? Injecting themselves, doing such things, and giving each other diseases…

These things destroy both them and their parents. Their father from a stroke, their mother with a heart condition, liver complaints etc. That’s why you young people should consider this limitation as a necessity. You should consider this limitation as a blessing. You should be grateful to your parents who set boundaries. Even if they squeeze you a little too hard, they do it out of love.


[1] During the transcription of this recording the patterns of spoken language were corrected to some degree. Repetition was left out and the verbally unclear parts were enhanced in order to gain the best meaning from Fr. Paisios words.

[2] Christ said “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Acts 20:35

[3] Luke 10:19

[4] Allusion to Mark 16:18

[5] Luke 10:19

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