Daily Meditations

Father Maximos on Spiritual Struggle

People ask me how to begin their spiritual struggle. And they will tell me, ‘Look, Father, I have never had any relationship with the Ecclesia.'” Fr. Maximos leaned back in his chair. “So what am I to advise them? Such people may not be ready to engage in a more subtle struggle with their lower passions. I suggest that they start to do simple things: Go to church regularly, and during the morning and before you go to sleep read a simple prayer, even if you do it mechanically. Try to fast sometime. Try to be a bit more modest in the way you dress and the way you live in general. When people are liberated from such simple fixations, then it is easier for them to turn their attention to higher things, toward God.”

An ambulance passed by, its siren briefly interrupting our conversation. “Do you know that we have the potential to have our hearts and minds stuck on something utterly trivial, like a nail or a pen?” Fr. Maximos said. “Even a single pen can enslave us and prevent us from turning our focus wholeheartedly toward God.”

To illustrate the point further, Fr. Maximos told us about what the great Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, a man renowned for gifts of clairvoyance and prophetic vision, once did.

“Elder Ephraim visited us at our skete once. He needed to write a letter, and our own elder offered him his pen. He drafted the letter and, as he was handing the pen back to our elder, said,

‘Hmm . . . what a beautiful pen you have!’ You understand that a minor thing like a pen is of great value in a place like Mt. Athos. It is not always easy to find them. Our elder replied, ‘Take it, Father. I have another one. Anyway, I go to Thessaloniki on occasion, and I can get more. You, on the other hand, never leave the Holy Mountain. So please take it.’ Elder Ephraim reluctantly accepted the gift, placed it in his pocket, and left. His hermitage was two hours away on foot. You must have heard how difficult it is to walk on Mt. Athos. The elder had to hike along rugged mountain paths. It was six in the afternoon when he left. But at midnight we heard knocks at the door. It was very strange to get a visitor that late. We opened the door, and what did we see? Elder Ephraim. He was holding the pen. He said, ‘Please take it back. This pen cut me off from God. I felt that Grace had abandoned me.’

“Just imagine. He walked another four hours back and forth to return the pen, which he felt had interrupted his prayerful state.”

“This is hard for us to accept,” Maria pointed out. “Psychologists would define such behavior as pathological.”

Fr. Maximos, who knew Elder Ephraim well, waved his hand dismissively. “What actually happened was that when he went back to his hermitage and began praying, he felt that he could not concentrate. The pen was on his mind, distracting his focus.”

Fr. Maximos scanned the table, looking at our puzzled faces. “This is an example of what it means for a great saint to lose his concentration and connection with God. It is insufferable. So for Elder Ephraim the answer was simple. He had to get rid of that which obstructed his relationship with God. It is not accidental that Christ said, ‘Whoever loves himself more than me, even his own life, cannot be my disciple.’ In other words, God asks us to cut off every relationship. Not to hate ourselves, not to reject ourselves, but to liberate ourselves from self-absorption, from our narcissism. It requires great courage to be liberated from the bondage of this world so that we fear nothing.”

~Adapted from Kyriacos C. Markides, Inner River: A Pilgrimage to the Heart of Christian Spirituality