Advice for Novices


Saint John Climacus


Table of Contents 

  • The Struggles of Novices
  • Of Love and Pleasure
  • On the desire to flee back into the world to help others
  • Concerning the Dreams of Novices
  • The Struggle for Mortification
  • On Self-Mistrust
  • To Suffer Indignities
  • Disciples and Teachers
  • Constancy
  • Purifications in Persecutions
  • Tears and Cognition
  • On Mourning
  • On Discernment
  • On Overcoming Bad Thoughts
  • A Time for Everything
  • On Doing the Divine Will
  • Reading Scripture
  • Gluttony and Vainglory
  • On the Rise of Passions
  • On Spiritual Growth



Advice for Novices from Saint John Climacus


The Struggles of Novices


            The Lord has wisely eased the struggles of novices, lest they be driven back into the world during their first battles.  So then rejoice always in the Lord, all you servants of God.  Recognize this first sign of the Lord’s love. It is He who has summoned you.  HE has often been known to act in the following way:  when He sees courageous souls He permits them to be embattled from the very beginning, in order the sooner to reward them. (78-79)


Of Love and Pleasure


            Young men who still feel strongly the urge for physical love and pleasure and yet who also want to take on the regime of a monastery must discipline themselves with every form of vigilance and prayer, avoiding all dangerous comfort, so that their last state may not be worse than their first. (83)


On the desire to flee back into the world to help others


            Then again we manage for some time to live away from our relatives.  We practice a little piety, compunction, self-control.  And then the empty thoughts come tramping toward us, seeking to turn us back to the places we knew.  They tell us what a lesson we are, what an example, what a help to those who witnessed our former wicked deeds.  If we happen to be articulate and well informed, they assure us that we could be rescuers of souls and teachers to the world.  They tell us all this so that we might scatter at sea the treasures we have assembled while in port.  So we had better imitate Lot, and certainly not his wife.  The soul turning back to the regions from which it cam will be like the salt that has lost its savor, indeed like that famous pillar.  Run from Egypt, run and do not turn back.  The heart yearning for the land there will never see Jerusalem, the land of dispassion. (86)


Concerning the Dreams of Novices


            Our mind is the instrument of knowledge, but it is very imperfect and filled with all sorts of ignorance.  This is a fact that cannot be disguised.

            Now the palate discriminates between various kinds of food, the hearing distinguishing between the things it perceives, the sun shows up the weakness of the eyes, and words reveal the ignorance of a soul.  Nevertheless, the law of love urges us to reach beyond ourselves, and so it seems to me – and I do not wish to be insistent – that, immediately after this discussion of exile, or rather, in the course of it, something ought to be said about dreams.  For we should not be unaware of this type of deceit practiced by our wily enemies.

            A dream is a stirring of the mind during the body’s rest, while a fantasy is something which tricks the eyes when the intellect is asleep.  Fantasy occurs when the mind wanders, while the body is awake.  A fantasy is the contemplation of something that does not actually exist.

            It must be clear why I have decided to speak here about dreams.  After we leave home and family for the sake of the Lord, after we have gone into exile for the love of God, the demons try to shake us with dreams.  They show us our relatives grieving, near death, poverty-stricken or imprisoned because of us.  But the man who believes in dreams is like someone running to catch up with his own shadow.

            The devils of vainglory do their prophecies in dreams.  They guess the future and, as part of their deceit, they inform us of it so that we are astonished to discover our visions coming true.  Indeed we get carried away with the notion that we are already close to the gift of foreknowledge.

            To the credulous, a devil is a prophet; and to those who despise him, he is just a liar.  Because he is a spiritual being, he knows what is happening in the lower regions, that someone is dying, for instance, so by way of dreams he passes the information on to the more gullible.  However, demons lack actual foreknowledge.  If they did not, these tricksters would be able to foretell our deaths.

            Devils often take on the appearance of angels of light or martyrs and they appear to us in sleep and talk to us, so that they can push us into unholy joy and conceit when we wake up.  But this very effect will reveal their trick, for what angels actually reveal are torments, judgements, and separation, with the result that on waking up we tremble and are miserable.  And if we start to believe in the devils of our dreams, then we will be their playthings when we are also awake.

            The man who believes in dreams shows his inexperience, while the man who distrusts every dream is very sensible.  Trust only the dreams that foretell torments and judgement for you, but even these dreams may also be from demons if they produce despair in you. (89-90)


The Struggle for Mortification


            The beginning of the mortification both of the soul’s will and also of the body’s members is hard.  The halfway stage is sometimes difficult, sometimes not.  But the end is liberation from the senses and freedom from pain. (92)


On Self-Mistrust


            So you have decided to strip for the race of spiritual profession, to take Christ’s yoke on your neck, to lay your own burden on the shoulders of another, to pledge your willing surrender to slavery?  And for this you want it in writing that you get your freedom in return, even when you swim across this great sea borne up on the hands of others?  Very well, then.  But you had better recognize that you have undertaken to travel by a short and rough road, along which there is only one false turning, that which they call self-direction and if that is avoided – even in matters seemingly good, spiritual, and pleasing to God – then straightway one has reached journey’s end.  For the fact is that obedience is self-mistrust up to one’s dying day, in every matter, even the good. (92)


To Suffer Indignities


            My son, if at the very start you manage to allow your entire soul to suffer indignities, you will not have to struggle for many years in search of blessed peace. (109)


Disciples and Teachers


            I once saw an inexperienced disciple who used to boast in certain quarters about the achievement of his teacher.  He imagined that in this way he would win glory for himself from another’s harvest.  But he only got a bad name for himself, for everyone put this question to him: “How then could a good tree grow such a dead branch?” (111)




            Whoever has secretly vowed not to give up the struggle until his very last breath, to endure a thousand deaths of body and soul, will not fall easily into any of these difficulties, for it is inconstancy of heart and unfaithfulness to one’s place that bring about stumblings and disaster.  Those who readily go from monastery to monastery are totally unfit since nothing is more conducive to barrenness than impatience. (112)


Purifications in Persecutions


            Insults, belittlings and such like have the bitterness of wormwood for the soul of the novice; praise, honor, approval, are like honey and give birth to every kind of sweetness in pleasure lovers.  But we should remember the nature of each of them.  Wormwood purifies all internal filth, while honey increases gall. (114)


Tears and Cognition


            Tears are actually the product of thought, and the father of thought is a rational mind. (138)


On Mourning


            Wear something to encourage you in your mourning.  Those who lament the dead wear black.  And if you find yourself unable to mourn, then lament that very fact; but if you are able to mourn, be sure to lament that by your sins you have brought yourself down from a condition free from toil to one that is full of labour. (138)


On Discernment


            Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway along the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is a knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others.  To put the matter generally, discernment is – and is recognized to be – a solid understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things; and it is found only among those who are pure in heart, in body, and in speech. (229)


On Overcoming Bad Thoughts                                                                 


            It is one thing to pray for rescue from bad thoughts, another to stand up against them, and another still to despise and ignore them.  The first situation is exemplified by the one who said: “O God, come and help me” (Ps. 69:2); the second by, “I will speak a word of contradiction to those who reproach me” (Ps. 118:42), and “You have made us a contradiction to our neighbors” (Ps. 79:7)  And of the third the witness is the psalmist: “I was silent and did not open my mouth, I put a guard on my mouth when the sinner was before me” (Ps. 38:10); “The proud have gone too far in breaking the law, but I have not turned aside from my contemplation of You” (Ps. 118:51).  So the man who stands in the middle position will often make use of the first of these, since he is insufficiently prepared, whereas the man who is still at the first stage cannot use the second method as a way of overcoming his enemies.  However, the man who has come as far as the third step will completely ignore the demons. (240)


A Time for Everything


            Ecclesiastes declares that there is a time for everything under heaven and “everything” may be taken to refer to our spiritual life.  If this is so, then we ought to examine the matter; and we should do everything in proper season.  For those entering the struggle – I mean novices – there is a time for dispassion and a time for passion.  There is a time for tears and a time for hardness of heart, a time for obedience and a time for command, a time for fasting and a time for eating, a time for the battle against the body our enemy and a time for quiet in our flesh.  There is a time for the soul’s upheaval and a time for calm in the mind, a time for heart’s sorrow and a time for joy of spirit, a time for teaching and a time for listening, a time for pollutions, perhaps on account of conceit, and a time for cleansing by humility, a time for effort and a time for secure rest, a time for stillness and a time for undistracted distraction, a time for unceasing prayer and a time for honest service.  Proud zeal must therefore never be allowed to deceive us and we should never strain for what will come in its own good time, since winter is not the time for summer’s goods nor sowing the proper season for the harvest.  There is a time for the sowing of labours and a time to reap the astounding fruits of grace; and if it were otherwise we would not receive in due time whatever was proper to the season. (241).


On Doing the Divine Will


            Whatever you do, however you live, whether you live under obedience or whether you are independent, in what you do openly or in your spiritual life, let it be your rule and practice to ask if what you do is in accordance with the will of God.  When we novices, for instance, do something and the humility deriving from that action is not added to the possessions of our souls, then the action, great or small, has not been undertaken in deference to the divine will.  For those of us who are untried recruits in the life of the spirit, growth in humility comes out of doing what the Lord wants; for those who have reached midway along that route, the test is an end to inner conflict; and for the perfect there is increase and, indeed, a wealth of divine light. (242)


Reading Scripture


            When we begin religious life, some unclean demons give us lessons in the interpretation of scripture.  This happens particularly in the case of people who are either vainglorious or who have had a secular education, and these are gradually led into heresy and blasphemy.  One may detect this diabolical teaching about God, or rather war against God, by the upheaval, confusion, and unholy joy in the soul during lessons. (250)


Gluttony and Vainglory


            I have already said that at the beginning of one’s life as a monk one cannot suddenly become free of gluttony and vainglory.  But we must not counter vainglory with high living simply because novices, to defeat gluttony is to run into vainglory.  So let us fight it by way of frugality.  The time will come – and indeed is already here for those really wishing it – when the Lord will enable us to trample on this vice. (254)


On the Rise of Passions


            At the start of our religious lives, we may find that our passions are stronger than they were when we were in the world.  This should not upset us, and if we remove the causes of our sickness, then health will come to us.  Those beasts were formerly concealed in us, but they did not reveal themselves. (255)


On Spiritual Growth


            The lessening of evil yields abstinence from evil, and such abstinence is the starting point of repentance.  The beginning of repentance is the beginning of salvation, and the beginning of salvation is a good intention, which, in turn, is the begetter of labours.  The beginning of labours is virtue and the beginning of virtue is a flowering, and the flowering of virtue is the beginning of activity.

            The offspring of virtue is perseverance.  The fruit and offspring of perseverance is habit, and the child of habit is character.

            Good character begets fear, and fear begets observance of the commandments, by which I mean those of heaven and earth.  To keep the commandments is to show love, and the starting point of love is an abundance of humility, which in turn is the daughter of dispassion.  To have dispassion is to have fullness of love, by which I mean the complete indwelling of God in those who, through dispassion, are pure of heart for they shall see Go (Matt. 5:8).  To Him be glory forever and ever.  Amen.





Make a Free Website with Yola.