Letters of Elder Macarius of Optina

St. Macarius
  of Optina

VI. Blessed are the pure in heart:
for they shall see God

1. Passions

Your reasoning on the passions is entirely false: God has armed us with intelligence and a free will; His law, when followed intelligently and freely, becomes our shield. We must keep our arms polished and use them courageously in our two unceasing wars: our offensive war, the fight to understand and follow His law; and our defensive war, our resolution never to succumb to that which is contrary to His law; the law being nothing but His expressed will.

For, alas, no sooner does a man break God’s law, than he is spiritually punished: having lost grace, he eats away his heart in vain longings, endeavoring all the while to choose for himself the best of many equally bad things. These longings and endeavors deflect his attention away from his real good, and dim his intelligence. Soon, having become the slave of his passions, he can no longer resist their lure; then the mead of pleasure changes to the sting of retribution.

Our passions are indeed our most pitiless tormentors. So unrelenting are they that even the humbled sinner who, having recognized them for what they are, wishes to free himself of their domination and decides to leave them and face the light, even though he is still tormented and tortured by their murky brood. They pursue him long.

They crowd around the unfortunate until his constant resistance to their renewed attacks and his active penitence have wiped their very memory from his heart.

On April 1, read the life story of Mary the Harlot. [53]

2. Anger

I was distressed to learn that you are still as irritable as ever. Fear of God, love, and humility are the medicine. Pride is the root of this besetting passion of yours. Read Mark’s Epistle to Nicholas, in Philocalia I. [385]

You say your maid annoys and irritates you so much that, in order not to fly into a rage, you have taken to telling her-whenever you feel a paroxysm coming on-that she must not lead you into temptation, after which you hurriedly leave the room. This seems to me a remarkably weak way of combating the root of the evil.

Consider her, in this connection, as being used by God to show you your greatest weakness: this rage which slumbers in you at all times but lies hidden until she, the hand of God, discloses it. Combat this temptation through practicing humility, charity, courage. It will take long to conquer; but pray for help and start now. [397]

Your flying into a rage whenever the children fail to grasp your meaning, or when they misbehave, is of course a great fault. You must fight hard against this passion which is apparently getting you into its clutches. Read John Climacus; he deals with anger and meekness.’ John Cassian’ and Nilus of Sora are also most illuminating. [379]

Guard against despondency. Courageously fight your fits of rage; never despair of overcoming them. This rage is one of your worst passions, but you could not wish to cure yourself of it if you did not see it. Therefore, the children who call forth these fits are God’s instruments for your correction. Thank them for it, in the core of your heart.

Refrain from reprimanding them while you are in this condition. It will be better for you, and more impressive for them if you talk things over calmly, a little later. [383]

You are quite right: it was wrong of you to stand up so hotly for your husband. This inclination of yours to be carried away on a wave of blind rage whenever you defend those you love, shows a blemish in you.

But the perception of a blemish must never lead to despondency, only to penitence. Humbly confess to God this sin, this dark passion, this rage of yours; and pray for His help, so that you may gradually learn to defend with a magnanimous, firm gentleness even those whom you love best. [231]

You ask for some way of completely eradicating irritability. The inclination to irritability is given us to use against sin, and we were never meant to use it against our fellow men. When we do, we act contrary to our true nature.

We use irritability in this wrong, deflected way because we are proud. You must, of course, strive to curb your irritability; but guard yourself against being elated if you succeed. Read John Climacus, and John Cassian. Also Nilus of Sora. [238]

3. Hatred

It is good that you should be at peace with all but one; distressing that you should be unable to bring the breath of peace between yourself and this one. Who can boast of being without frailty? Not one of us.

The enemy constantly endeavors to awaken in the abyss of the human heart a great turmoil about trifles. This is one of his tricks to blind our soul to the sun of truth, Christ our Lord, hidden in the heart’s core of every one of our neighbors. [71]

I greatly rejoice to hear that, with God’s gracious help, you have actually overcome your fierce temptations and trials.

These bitter memories which, you say, stick in your heart like a great rusty nail, no matter how you hate them and try to pull them out, reveal the content of your moral make-up. Contemplating this rankling nail, recognize your frailty, humble yourself, and pray that God may help you to eradicate from your heart all bitterness and hatred, and that He may restore peace to your family life.

Since you are preparing to visit the Holy Land, it is important that you should regain your serenity. May the Lord help you to do so. May He help you to foil the enemy’s intention of subjecting you-now more than ever to the turmoil of a great agitation. [280]

4. Pride

Constantly bear in mind that, in the eyes of God, a penitent sinner is preferable to a proud man who has not sinned otherwise than by his pride....

Whenever our prayer subtly conceals that sharp icicle, our pride, it acts as a poison and can only lead us further away from God. [145]

“But,” you may well ask, “what means are there of acquiring humility?” Well, we acquire this art through reading the Fathers; pitiless self-examination and selfaccusation help too; also, making clear to ourselves how much worse we are than others; and refraining from all condemnation of them while we accept all their condemnation of us, as sent by God to cure our hideous spiritual sores. [146]

Bear this in mind: the Christian life is an unending spiritual fight. The wily enemy cleverly uses snares and arrows without number. Before some of us he spreads the lure of worldliness, the outer pride of pomp and circumstance, the cruder lusts-the lusts of the flesh.

But those of us who are not attracted by any of this he leads up on to the peaks of subtler prides. Having got us there-to the high country of self-esteem-he causes a dark mist, the mist of the subtlest prides, to enshroud our intellect. Then he leads us, his blinded slaves, away from God, without our even suspecting it.

Mark this too: it is not very hard for the simple sinner to come to hate his foul life and, leaving it, to fling himself on the mercy of God; but it is very hard for the subtler sinner-the self-sufficient one-to let a ray of divine love pierce the leather jacket of his self-righteousness.... Humility is the only weapon that wards off all attacks, but it is difficult to fashion, and the art of using it is often misunderstood, particularly by those who lead an active, worldly life. [72]

I can assure you I have not the slightest suspicion that you are seeking to hide any detail of your life from me; nor have I ever thought you double-faced. But I cannot fail to see how subtly you contradict yourself, how you misunderstand and misinterpret yourself. Remember always that the whole of our human misery is the consequence of pride. Humility alone is the path to joy, the gate to the blessed nearness-the intimacy of God.

John Climacus relates that a saintly old abbot once set about curing one of his spiritual sons of the vice of pride. When the old man at last ceased speaking, the young one meekly remarked, “Forgive me, Father, but of this vice of pride there is no trace in me.” To which the old man retorted, “And what do you think could better prove its hold on you than these proud words, advanced so meekly?” [73: to the same correspondent as 72]

5. Temptation

Remember that a good action is always either preceded or followed by temptations. God permits this so that the virtue, exercised in that particular action, may be confirmed, consolidated, steeled. [240]

You complain of overpowering laziness. This temptation often besets those who take on spiritual labor. To get rid of it the Fathers advise us to hold death constantly before the mind’s eye; death with its two alternatives, eternal torment or eternal bliss. The Fathers say that this, when carried out with perfect humility, brings down upon us that grace which completely frees us from laziness. [226]

So now, our charitable Lord has, in an unforeseeable manner, unravelled the complicated knots of your dark temptations, simultaneously granting you the courage to accept with gratitude all that the future may hold in store. Thus is the heart of man helped to die unto the fierce lure of the world; to be rid of every hankering after vainglory, every attraction of sensuous excitement, all lust after gold and silver. [48]

You are sorely distressed because of the surge of blasphemous thoughts against our Lord that you cannot stop. Believe me, you are innocent of these blasphemies. It is not you, but the devil who invents them. You do not take part in making them up and you are not responsible for them. But when you are overcome by distress he is delighted, and quickly unfolds an even richer carpet of them before you.

My advice is: firmly refuse to accept his suggestion that these thoughts are sins of yours. Strive to regain your poise, strive for peace of mind. Then they will soon vanish altogether.

Blasphemous thoughts assail us when we settle down in the comfortable illusion that we are living as we should, that we are getting on nicely with warm, fervent prayers, and when we condemn others for their lack of zeal. It is in punishment for such sins as these that the devil of blasphemy is allowed to creep into us.

Think less of yourself, refrain from judging others, and, with God’s help, evil thoughts will lose their hold on you. I shall pray that they may soon do so. [176]

Be careful not to undertake more rigors than you can bear. And since you are troubled by evil thoughts, remember that a simple evil thoughts is not a sin but only a test of the quality of our free will. We are free to indulge it or thrust it away. But whenever an evil thought becomes entwined with the corresponding passion, we have sinned and must make penance.

When we are not strong enough to fight unaided against such compound evil thoughts, we should pray for help to our Lord and our Lady. And, since pride is always the ground on which these battles are won by the evil thoughts that have crept into us, the most important thing is thoroughly to humble ourselves. [237]

St. Isaac says that whenever a man properly humbles himself, grace gathers round him.

You long for peace of mind, peace of the soul, but cannot find it? Of this peace-always a great reward-our Lord Himself says where and how we are to seek it: Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me: for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls (Matt. 11.29).

None can achieve this except through battling with temptations and through suffering great sorrows. Our Lord, too, fought, suffered, and sorrowed much before the time of His death on the cross. He was reproached, vilified, humiliated, and tempted. And He laboriously built up for us a picture of His own life on earth, which all of us must strive to follow. Read St. Isaac, Chapters 78 and 79. There you will learn how necessary temptations are, and that they are permitted so that we should gain strength in fighting them. He chiefly examines temptations of the spirit; but what he says also holds good for temptations of the flesh.

As warriors are awarded medals and crosses for repeatedly proving their readiness to sacrifice their lives, so we-soldiers of the spirit-can only reap our reward after fighting valiantly and long. The greatest fight of all is the fight against pride, with all its symptoms of anger, vainglory, rage, hatred. When we have overcome this, we receive our best reward: the beautiful peace of the soul. [212]

Your description of your new ailment, this storm of dark passions that has swept away all traces of your hardwon peace, wrings my heart. My compassion for you is great; but it were idle for either of us to think that I can give you any help without the succour of our Lord, and a great effort on your part-an effort into which you must be prepared to throw the whole of your will.

Remember what I have often said: pride is the forerunner of every fall. Since you ignored and refused to fight the devil’s brood in its infancy, you are now beset by a mature host grown to the stature of giants. But with God’s help all battles can be won. Appeal to Him constantly and, in your most bitter moments, fling yourself at His feet calling out as the Prophet did, Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak! (Ps. 6:2). The grace of God can bring about what nothing else could.

May we humble ourselves, refrain from all condemnation of others, and accept in a spirit of love and devotion all that God sends for our betterment. [315: to the same correspondent as 316]

When beset by temptations pray for courage and strength to remain firm. Remember: there is an eternity! [264]


From Russian Letters of Direction 1834-1860 Macarius Starets of Optino, by Iulia De Beausobre. Originally published March 1944 by Dacre Press, Westminster. Copyright 1975 St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

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