Orthodox America

  The Desert-Dweller Fotinia

(Concluded from issue 87)


            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, borne by the wings of Love, is uplifted to the contemplation of divine Beauty, surpassing beauty, and, being outside of itself, it forgets about food and drink, about clothing and other bodily necessities. 

            Fr. Joachim:  Has it ever happened that you have spent hours in a state of contemplation, like St. Arseny?           

Fotinia:  Yes.  Often when I pray, my spirit falls into contemplations; I remain for hours unmoving, seeing with my spiritual eyes the goodness which God has prepared for those who love Him, the angelic host, the souls of the saints who are filled with joy at the sight of the fullness of glory streaming from the Divine Throne, and who unceasingly praise the Tri-Hypostatic Godhead.  I do not remain all night in this state like Abba Arseny, because I do not possess his strength; I cannot lift up my hands at the setting of the sun in order to bring them down at the appearance of the light of day, as he did.  I am young and I am afraid of hurting myself; my physical wekness doesn’t allow me to practice extreme asceticism.  The Holy Fathers who were strong and experienced could allow themselves everything.  But we are weak in soul, and if God – Who loves people – did not come to our aid, we wouldn’t be able to do anything at all:  Without Me ye can do nothing, said the Saviour.

 J.:  Besides mental attacks, have you been troubled by demons [in some other


F.:  Memories turn my thoughts to the world and what is in the world; but this has no effect on my soul which remains passionless.

 J.:  Tell me, Fotinia, when you pray does your heart burn with that fire, that love for Christ of which the Lord spoke when He said:  I am come to send fire on the earth, and what will I if it be already kindled?  (Luke 12:49).

 F.:  Oh!  That fire always burns within my heart.  Sometimes it flames up to such an extent during prayer that if today there existed such a persecution as in ancient times I would run towards martyrdom to shed my blood to the last drop for Christ my Saviour.  Oh!  What this divine fire evokes in me; it constantly inflames my heart.  At times, unable to endure it, I fall to my knees, weep and cry out:  “Christ my Saviour, my Redeemer, my Bridegroom, my life, my being,” inspired at that moment by my fervent love for Jesus.

 J.:  At that moment, do you feel an inner change?

 F.:  Yes, I feel a divine renewal and it seems to me that I see in the depths of my heart our Saviour saying to me:  Be not afraid, it is I.  And after this I remember His words:  I am come to send fire on the earth, and what will I if it be already kindled?  Then I bow my head on my breast and say:  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!  And then I think of nothing but the Lord Jesus.  When the flame goes out I get up and sing a hymn or a psalm, and go about my business – I boil my grasses, or gather them, I chop wood, I clean my dwelling, etc.  The Holy Fathers say that we should take care of our body and not allow it to go to ruin because it is like a machine for our soul; they function together.  If [the body] is subject to outbursts, it should be bridled, but not destroyed.  One must maintain moderation, as the Saviour teaches:  Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.  All those who transgressed this law and allowed themselves to be carried away, incited by demons, did not attain to good:  some went crazy; others died of hunger – denying themselves earthly food, as St. Ephraim the Syrian describes in the case of two monks; others fell seriously ill and had to give up all ascetic practice.  It is necessary above all to preserve prudence, as St. Syncletica so beautifully says.  I keep myself in good conditions to avoid any such disturbances.  When I go out for needed work, about 10 o’clock in the morning, I return to my cave as soon as it begins to be hot.  My cave, as you see, boasts a special mercy:  in summer it is cool, while in winter it is warm.  When I return to my palace I read the hours and sing until noon, after which I eat that which the Heavenly Father is pleased to give me, as I’ve told you already.

 J.:  When you walk about in the desert, are you not afraid of meeting up with the half-wild Bedouins?

 F.:  Of course.  But I put my hope in our Lord and Saviour.  I also try to be vigilant.  Arabic is my native language; this allows me to understand what they are saying.  Like all Arabs they talk loudly, so that from a distance I can hear their voices and take precaution.

 J.:  Have you found bee hives in the desert?

 F.:  Yes, in some ruins and hollows in the cliffs of the mountains I found some hives full of honey.  I collect as much as I can, except in summer, because honey in the summertime can cause fever.  The bees like places that are inaccessible to wild animals.  Being very clever, they choose a suitable dwelling place.  But I am a good climber and can carry away as much nectar as I want.  Here, on account of the hot weather, the bees never cease their work – neither in winter nor in summer.  Truly, this place is a land of honey, as it says in the Scripture.

 J.:  What do you think about in your hours of rest, when you are not praying?

 F.:  But I pray constantly – when I eat, when I walk, when I chop wood,; whatever it is I do I always repeat the prayer:  “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”  Even when I sleep, my heart continues to repeat the prayer.  Oh!  How merciful is the Heavenly Father!  It is not possible to grasp His boundless love for man, His creation.  If we keep His Divine laws, He pours upon us His goodwill.  Do you know what this is – God’s goodwill?  It is the fullness of blessedness; it is joy, happiness, delight, as Dionysius the Areopagite so wonderfully describes in his writings.  From God, he says, comes illumination; this light shines and fills with blessedness all the ranks of heavenly spirits, especially the saints, because man, according to Scripture, was created in the image and likeness of God.

 J.:  Do you therefore think, Fotinia, that the saints surpass the heavenly angels?

 F.:  Yes.  They are far superior, because the Son and Word of God Himself, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, took upon Himself the human form and became man from the holy Theotokos.  And the Virgin Mary, the Mother of our God, is superior to all and is exalted above the heavenly powers.  To her belongs the place directly after the Holy Trinity, and the Holy Church rightfully extols her when it sings:  “More honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim,” since she was a throne for Christ, the King of Heaven, and bore in her womb God the Word.  Among all the generations of man, she alone was chosen as the holiest of all, to serve as a habitation for our Saviour and God, in order that the path to salvation might be opened.

 J.:  Yes, I also believe this, as do all Orthodox Christians.  But I would ask you to repeat clearly what you just said concerning man’s foreordaining.

 F.:  Man has a high calling because he was created in the image and likeness of God, i.e., he came from God and must return to Him in order to partake in the divine glory and unending blessedness.  God is the source of blessedness, and whoever communicates with God becomes likewise blessed.  Eternal life, blessedness, the kingdom, joy, delight, paradise, happiness – all this is contained in God himself.  I am the Resurrection and the Life, said the Saviour.  It follows that he who is in communion with God is in a state of blessedness.  About hell, which the Saviour calls eternal darkenss, this is the deprivation of divine grace, a separation from God, not only material-spatial, but also moral, there where no light shines, where darkness reigns.  What is darkness?  It is the absence of light, and likewise the separation from the Heavenly Kingdom.  The word “kingdom” in the mouth of the Saviour signifies blessedness.  God is the highest Good.  The more a person draws near to God through good deeds, the happier and more blessed he becomes.

Sin is the greatest evil.  The more a person draws away from God – not physically but morally, because of sin – the more unhappy he becomes.  Who gnashes his teeth?  He who is in a state of unhappiness or, in other words, in sin.  Who burns in the unquenchable fire of tyranny?  He who knows that he is responsible for his own unhappiness.  Where is the center of the unquenchable and everlasting fire?  In the heart of the sinner, as the Saviour revealed in the sermon of the rich man and Lazarus.  Hell -- this is nothing other than the deprivation of Divine grace.  What is sickness if not the deprivation of health? What is sorrow if not the loss of happiness?  Scripture tells us that the demons were orginally bright and kind angels.  Having sinned, they lost the divine grace and became dark, evil, disgusting.  Having lost the Divine brilliance, which gives light and joy, they buried themselves in darkness.  Like a drunken woman who, suffering from a hangover, tries to drink even more, so are those who think that through sinning more they can somehow achieve freedom and peace.  They are wrong; they will always suffer because sin removes them from the Light and throws them into yet greater misery, which the Saviour calls the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 

Separation from God – this is the greatest punishment.  I repeat:  this is a moral separation, not a physical separation.  In those who live in sin one can observe agitation, fear, anxiety.  But man is called to partake in divine grace, thanks to God’s mercy and the doing of good.

 J.:  How did you come to understand all this, how does one sense blessedness already in this world, and how is the unrighteous man unhappy?

 F.:  You have read, of course, that St. Arseny the Great raised his arms for prayer when the sun set, and did not lower them until it rose upon his face.  Where was Fr. Arseny’s spirit during the course of the night, when he stood unmoving with his arms upraised?  Of course, in heaven.  What did he see?  The glory of the Heavenly Father.  And he exulted because his heart gave assurance that the day would come when he would be joined to this glory.  In such a way, he who prays in Spirit and in Truth and penetrates the heavens in his spirit, rises up and reaches the throne of God.  Having attained this, he does not want to be estranged and desires to contemplate forever the glory of the Heavenly Father, the source of life, happiness, Blessedness.

That fire which attracts me to martyrdom is not material fire; rather, it is living water which says within me:  Go to the Father…

 J.:  Tell me, is your spirit exalted during prayer?

 F.:  My spirit is often caught up into heaven.  All thought of anything earthly disappears, my heart is filled with joy and delight.  The fire of love for Christ inflames my heart to such an extent that if I could fly I would, in order to live eternally in the blessedness of the heavenly mansions.  When King David beheld these he exclaimed:  Who will give me wings like a dove?  and I will fly and be at rest (Ps. 54:6).  There, above, is the true life, above is rest, Eternal Blessedness; above is the Radiance of the Divine Light of the Heavenly Father – not for bodily eyes, but for the eys of the soul, in the very depth of the heart.  The doer of good deeds has a foretaste of blessedness already in this world…Abba Pambo says that if heaven and earth were suddenly to disappear his heart would not experience any fear.  What inspired him to make such a statement?  The blessedness which dwelt within him.  Being constantly in a state of welldoing, he was united to God, he transfigured himself spiritually and all grief, all sorrow was driven from his heart, which was filled with spiritual joy.  “The doing of good,” says the divine Chrysostom, “unites one with God and gains in inhertiance in the heavenly Kingdom.”  He who labors in doing good, even while still in this life, takes delight in Happiness and feels this in himself.

By contrast, when by reason of sin that Light no longer shines in the soul, it is filled with grief, sorrow, sighs, tears, fear, darkness.  When I was still living in the world, I knew people who enjoyed riches and honor and other good things, but they were powerless in the face of illness; they despaired in the face of death, the very thought of which filled them with terror.  And I knew others who on account of their sins found themselves in the midst of absolute darkness and refused to hear any words about eternal life and eternity, or about the Righteous Judge and the Judgment.  The agitation and feeling of terror which seized them were a sign of the absence of grace and a foretaste of eternal torment, i.e., hell.

If a man knew what was in his best interest, he would prefer a thousand deaths to the loss of the straight path which the Holy and Sacred Gospel opened for us, the path which leads us to the Blessed and Eternal Life.

 J.:  Here Fotinia fell silent; her heart was brimming with love, tears flowed from her eyes.  (She was profoundly moved.)  Desiring to break her silence I asked:  during prayer, when your spirit is exalted, what do you see?

 F.:  You are constantly asking about mysteries.  I already told you that during this time I no longer feel myself to be in this world, although my body is on earth.  I no longer see anything material, I no longer feel anything earthly, because my spirit is in Divine Light where it hears – not with bodily ears but with spiritual ears – the singing of the angelic host, singing to God, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord of Sabaoth, Heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory.”  When my spirit is immersed in this contemplation, my heart burns with love for Jesus and, together with Paul, I exclaim:  I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me (Gal. 2:20).  When I come to myself my heart continues to burn with love for our Saviour, tears stream from my eyes…Then I am aware of my nothingness and I am aware, shaken, of the Heavenly Father’s boundless love for man – His creation.  I bow my head, crossing my arms and say, “Who am I, a wretched one?  What did I do that the Lord should visit me?  Nothing!  I cry out:  O Lord, full of goodness!  O, Highest Good!  O, Divine Love!  O, Heavenly Father!  Praise be to Thine All-holy Name!  For if Thou dost manifest such graciousness towards me who am poor and worthless, how great must be Thy graciousness towards Thy true servants.  And if I – who have done nothing worthy of it – am filled with divine joy by the foretaste of Thy heavenly and divine beauty, then what must be the joy, what must be the delight of those who have overcome the world and its prince, and who have come to Thee wearing the crown of victory?

 J.:  Then Fotinia fell silent again.  I was profoundly moved; in my spirit I was outside this world.  Silently I observed Fotinia’s face.  It was not the face of a human being; it was the face of an angel.

             Through genuine love for God we can drive out the passions.  Love for God is this:  to choose Him rather than the world, and the soul rather than the flesh, by despising the things of this world and by devoting ourselves constantly to Him through self-control, love, prayer, psalmody and so on. St. Maximos the confessor, Third Century on Love


Editor’s note:  The exalted material contained in this rare interview with a literal desert-dweller of almost modern times must be seen in its proper context.  Like the famous “pilgrim” in the Orthodox spiritual classic, Way of a Pilgrim, this righteous woman, Fotinia, is clearly steeped in Holy Scripture and the writings of the Holy Fathers, both of which she constantly quotes, and which are her sure guides.  The externals of her life – living in a cave of the inhospitable Palestinian wilderness – must not be mistaken as the point of her life.  Nor should the reader be striving for some kind of “mystical” state, such as was granted to Fotinia.  Rather, it is her single-minded abandonment to God and His Providence that should inspire and comfort us.  To live only for God is difficult for those who must live in the world, but not impossible.  In many small ways it is possible to lift up one’s heart to heaven throughout the day,  in the midst of many struggles and difficulties – even in the midst of household chores!  And every single effort to “lift up one’s heart” is both seen and rewarded by God, no matter how small or fleeting.