The Holy Fathers say with one voice: The first thing to keep in mind is never in any respect to rely on yourself. The warfare that now lies before you is extraordinarily hard, and your own human powers are altogether insufficient to carry it on. If you rely on them you will immediately be felled to the ground and have no desire to continue the battle. Only God can give you the victory you wish.
This decision not to rely on self is for most people a severe obstacle at the very outset. It must be over come, otherwise we have no prospect of going further. . . .
We must empty ourselves, therefore, of the immoderately high faith we have in ourselves. Often it is so deeply rooted in us that we do not see how it rules over our heart. It is precisely our egoism, our self-centerdeness and self-love that cause all our difficulties, our lack of freedom in suffering, our disappointments and our anguish of soul and body.
Take a look at yourself, therefore, and see how bound you are by your desire to humour yourself and only yourself. Your freedom is curbed by the restraining bonds of self-love, and thus you wander, a captive corpse, from morning till eve. “Now I will drink,” “now I will get up,” “now I will read the paper.” Thus you are led from moment to moment in your halter of preoccupation with self, and kindled instantly to displeasure, impatience or anger if an obstacle intervenes. . . .
Naked, small and helpless, you now pass on to the most difficult of all human tasks: to conquer your own selfish desires. Ultimately it is just this “self-persecution” on which your warefare depends, for as long as your selfish will rules, you cannot pray to the Lord with a pure heart: Thy will be done. If you cannot get rid of your own greatness, neither can you lay yourself o pen for real greatness. If you cling to your own freedom, you cannot share in true freedom, where only one will reigns.
The saints’ deep secret is this: do not seek freedom, and freedom will be given to you. . . .
The holy Fathers’ counsel is to begin with small things, for, says Ephraem the Syrian, how can you put out a great fire before you have learned to quench a small one? If you wish to set yourself free from great suffering, crush the small desires, say the Holy Fathers. . . .
Thus it does not pay to come to grips with the hard-to-master great vices and bad habits you have acquired without at the same time overcoming your small “innocent” weaknesses: your taste for sweets, your urge to talk, your curiosity, your meddling. For, finally, all our desires, great and small, are built on the same foundation, our unchecked habit of satisfying only our own will.
It is the life of our will that is destroyed. Since the Fall the will has been running errands exclusively for its own ego. For this reason our warfare is directed against the life of self-will as such. And it should be undertaken without delay or wearying. If you have the urge to ask something, don’t ask! If you have the urge to drink two cups of coffee, drink only one! If you have the urge to look at the clock, don’t look! If you wish to smoke a cigarette, refrain! If you want to go visiting, stay at home!
This is self-persecution; in this way does one silence, with God’s help, one’s loud-voiced will. . . .
There are three kinds of nature in man, as Nicetas Stethatos further explains: the carnal man, wo wants to live for his own pleasure, even if it hamrs others; the natural man, who wants to please both himself and others; and the spiritual man, who wants to please only God, even if it harms himself.
The first is lower than human nature, the second is normal, the third is above nature; it is life in Christ.
Therefore give yourself no rest, allow yourelf no peace until you have slain that part within you that belongs to your carnal nature. Make it your purpose to track down every sign of the bestial within you and persecute it relentlessly. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh (Galatians 5:17). . . .
We overcome after a fashion, perhaps, our serious and dangerous vices, but there it stops. The small desires we freely let grow as they will. We neither embezzle nor steal, but delight in gossiping; we do not “drink,” but consume immoderate quantities of tea and coffee instead. The heart remains quite as full of appetites: the roots are not pulled out and we wander around in the tanglewoods that hve sprung up in the soil of our self-pity. . . .
Supress your ruinous weakness and your craving for comfort; attack them from every side! Crush your desire for enjoyment; do not give it air to breathe. Be strict with yourself; do not grant your carnal ego the bribes it is resitvely demanding. For everything gains strength from repetition, but dies if it is not given nourishment.
But take care not to bar the front entrance to evil and at the same time leave a back door ajar, through which it can cleverly slip in in another form.
How do you benefit if, for example you begin to sleep on a hard matress but instead indulge in warm baths? Or if you try to give up smoking but give free rein to your urge to prattle? Or if you deny your urge to prattle, but read exciting novels? Of if you stop reading novels but let loose your imagination and quiver in sweet melancholy?
All these are only different forms of the same thing: your insatiable craving to satisfy your own need for enjoyment. . . .
He who truly denies himself does not ask, Am I happy? or, Shall I be satisfied? All such questions fall away from you if you truly deny yourself, for by so doing you have also given up y our will for either earthly or heavenly happiness.
This obstinate will to personal happiness is the cause of unrest and division in your soul. Give it up and work against it: the rest will be given you without effort.
–Tito Colliander, Way of the Ascetics, pp. 4, 5, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 17, 18-19, 23