They that live in the wilderness have an unquenchable longing for God, as they are far from the tumult of life. (Sunday Antiphon, Tone I) During Great Lent we are called to make a special effort to withdraw from the world, to create for ourselves--as far as our strength and circumstances allow---a "desert" where we can more fully concentrate on spiritual struggle. To inspire our effort and gain a greater clarity of purpose, we are encouraged to read about the saints of the desert. Among the Lives available to us, the document below is truly unique. It is the story of a 19th century hermit in the desert of Palestine, a woman who, like St. Mary of Egypt, was instructed by God Himself (theodidache). She was discovered by the monk Joachim the Athonite (c. 1860), and his interview gives rare details both of the desert-dweller's exalted prayer life and of practical matters relating to her physical existence in the desert.
This excerpt appeared in the French periodical La Lumiere du Tabor,
from which it was translated into Russian by Mrs. Helene Kontzevitch. A talented
and perceptive church writer, her repose this year on the Sunday of Orthodoxy
has removed yet another spiritual "pillar" from our midst. May her
memory be eternal.
Silence and solitude allow the desert-dweller to free his intellect from confusion in order to concentrate in his heart, in order to become engrossed in prayer and call upon the Name--more than desired--Sweetest Lord Jesus, repeating with love, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
This unceasing prayer, this constant invocation of the Name of Jesus, inflames the heart of the desert-dweller; and his soul, carried upon the wings of Love, ascends to the contemplation of divine beauty, surpassing all beauty, and, being beside itself, it forgets about food and drink, about clothing and other bodily requirements.
But the time has come to yield to our holy desert-dweller Fotinia and her interlocutor, Fr. Joachim.
Fr. J.: I beg you, Fotinia, to tell me how you endure solitude. After all, man is a social creature by nature.
F: I must admit that at first I suffered terribly. Often, in a dreamy state, I heard an inner voice, because man is gifted with language and always has a desire to speak. I often heard within me a voice saying, "Jean, Jean"--that used to be my name. This took place within me, but I thought that the voice sounded from the side. I looked around, to the right and to the left, to see who was speaking. Only later I understood that the voice had sounded from within. Then I began to pray out loud or to shout at the top of my lungs. You know, of course, Barnabas, the elder who lives in St. Sabbas' Monastery?
Fr. J.' Yes, 1 know him well, for I myself come from that monastery.
F.: Did he not say that in the course of twenty years he has never left the monastery?
Fr. J.: Yes.
F.: You know that he maintains silence and never speaks with anyone?
J.: I have been at the monastery for more than two years, and I have never heard him speak to anyone nor to myself personally, when we come together in church or in the refectory.
F.: Do not people say that at night he talks to himself and shouts loudly?
J: Yes, I have often heard how he shouts at night if he isn't sleeping; but they say he is battling with demons.
F.: No, he is not battling with demons, just as he is not talking with anyone; but he is suffering, like myself, because man wants to talk with another human being. And when there isn't anyone, he talks with himself. The Creator, Who knows this well, says: It is not good that the man should be alone (Gen. 2:18).
Once. when I shouted very loudly, I heard the yelp of a fox. She is lonely, like you, I said to myself. Then I saw her in front of me, in front of my cave. I became silent, afraid that other wild animals would join her. I will not hide the fact that in the course of the first year I suffered terribly; I thought that I would lose my mind. With great caution, so as not to be seen by the half wild Bedouins, I made my way to the bridge over the Jordan, some three hours' distance from my cave There, hiding myself in the bushes, I observed people traversing the bridge. In the evening I returned 'o my cave. I fell before the icon of the Mother of God, which you see upon entering the cave, and I wept for a long time; my tears were a great relief. Little by little, with God's help, I became accustomed, and now--glory to God--I live at peace, in the hope that I will be granted mercy by the lust Judge on the Great Day of His Second Coming.
J.: During your battles and your sufferings, did you sense the divine graze and help of the Mother of God, to whom you appealed?
F.: Of course, the Heavenly Queen, whom I entreated, helped me; she saved me in the face of a frightful struggle against thoughts--thoughts sent by the Enemy of our Salvation--which said to me: "In vain have you come to the desert. You will not be saved. If you had stayed in the world, in a married life, you would have lived as a true Christian and you would have mere easily attained salvation. What have you accomplished in the desert? You don't do anything good there. Wild animals also live in the desert; it is only in the world that the real battle takes place. Thousands and thousands of people have saved their souls in the world."
All this demonic advice was calculated to lead me to despair, to force me to leave the desert, to return me to the world, to catch me in a trap of my own desires.
J.: Were you aware that this came from the demons?
F.: Yes, to a certain extent I was aware that these thoughts were inspired by the demons, forcing me to inner warfare. But I lacked the experience I have now. I wanted to die; I begged the Queen of the world to take me from this world. And it was
then that the Queen of the world appeared to me and that the Divine light shone upon me. I saw her, and in the depths of my soul I heard her voice say to me:
"Don't be afraid of anything; place your hope on me."
Immediately, the darkness that engulfed my soul dissipated, and the thoughts left me. My heart filled with joy. After abundant tears I thanked the Creator of heaven and earth and began to sing: "It is truly meet to bless thee, the Theotokos ever-blessed and most pure Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, thee who without corruption gavest birth to God the Word, the very Theotokos, we magnify '
From that day l have been at peace, and I bless the day when the Heavenly Father found me worthy to come here and delivered me from the tumult of the world.
J.: Have you had any other visions since then?
F.: None as clear as that. But when I pray I feel joy in my heart; when I read the order of the service with the akathist to the Mother of God I am filled with joy. Often during prayer my mind is transported to beaver where I delight in the sight of the beauty of the heavenly life, eternal life, and my soul is enraptured. My happiness is so full in this desert that I would not exchange it for all the kingdoms of the world, or my cave for all the palaces in the world.
J: Indeed, you are blessed.
F.: You said 'blessed." But after all, man was created for bessedness, for eternal happiness, for eternal rejoecing. Do not the Holy Fathers say that God created the heavenly kingdom for man? God has no need of anyone. The world which He created did not add anything to His glory. God--He is eternal life, blessedness, happiness and rejoicing without end. God is glorified in Himself. The Saviour said: I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and go to the Father (John 16:28). Here the Saviour speaks about His humanity, for being God He was never separated from His Father, in accordance with the words which proclaim: "The only Son of God, existing in the bosom of the Father, as They Themselves revealed it to us." Similarly, man appeared from God and he must return to Him, but sin creates hindrances to this. If man understood his calling, he would sacrifice everything in order not to be separated from the Heavenly Father in the eternal life which is to come.
J.: Tell me, Fotinia, how is it that you feel such delight when you pray?
F.: God is the highest good; in drawing near to God--not, of course, by sensual means because God is spirit and everywhere present, but through the disposition of the heart, and through good works, a man become,, happy and blessed.
In prayer a person meets and communicates with God; when he prays in purity, in the Spirit of Truth, when in uprightness of heart he bows before God, then he becomes happy and blessed according to the measure of his good deeds. It often happens that when the person praying prays in Spirit and in Truth, his mind is transported to heaven where he is vouchsafed divine visions; then he sees God's creations not with his physical eyes but with spiritual vision, then he hears heavenly words which he cannot repeat because those who have not attained this level cannot understand those things which, according to the Apostle, cannot be uttered. Why? Because those who have not attained the level of the Apostle cannot understand them. It is the sam e thing that the Saviour told Nikodemos: If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tel1 you of heavenly things? (John 3:12).
(To be continued)
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