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Excerpts from Family Life

by Elder Paisios the Athonite


PART I: FOUNDING A FAMILY

CHAPTER 1: For a Harmonious Family

A good start to family life

—Geronta, a certain young man who has chosen the married life asked me how one properly begins this.

—From the beginning, he should seek to find a good girl who will comfort him, as people are relaxed and find comfort differently with different people. He should not seek to find someone who is rich or beautiful, but above all simple and humble. In other words, he should give more attention to interior rather than exterior beauty. When a girl is a positive person and capable of dealing with men, without having more womanly character than is necessary, this greatly helps the man to find immediate understanding and not a lot of headaches. If she also has fear of God and humility then they are able to join hands and pass the evil current of the world.

If the young man is seriously considering a certain girl for a spouse, I think it is better that he first makes his intentions known to her parents through one of his relatives and afterwards he can discuss it himself with the young lady and her parents. Later, if they give their approval and the two are engaged—and it is better that the engagement not carry on too long—he should strive, throughout the passing time until marriage, to view her as his sister and respect her. If both of them struggle with philotimo and keep their virginity, then in the Mystery of marriage, when the priest crowns them, they will richly take of the Grace of God. For, as St. John Chrysostom says, the crowns are symbols of victory against pleasure.[1]

Then, as much as they are able, they must strive to cultivate the virtue of love and always remain two united, with the Third, our Sweetest Christ. Naturally, in the beginning, until they get themselves together and become well acquainted with one another, they will have certain difficulties. This happens with every new beginning. Why, just the day before yesterday I saw a baby bird. It had just gone out to find food and could only fly about an inch above the ground. The poor thing didn’t know how to catch insects and wasted an hour trying to catch just one, little bug to eat. As I watched it, I was considering how every beginning is difficult. When a student finally receives his diploma and begins working, in the beginning it is difficult. A novice in a monastery also has difficulties in the beginning. A young man, when he marries, again in the beginning is met with difficulties.

—Geronta, does it matter if the woman is older than the man?

—There is not a Church canon which says that if a girl is two, three or even five years older than the young man they are not able to be married.

The harmony of God is hidden within a diversity of personalities.

One day a man came to my kalyve and told me that he was very worried because he was not of the same mind with his wife. I saw, however, that there was nothing serious between them. He just had a few rough edges, his wife had a few others, and they couldn’t deal with one another. They needed a little sanding. Take two planks of wood before sanding them. One has a knot here, the other has a knot there; if you try to join the planks there is an empty space left between them. If, however, you sand one a little here and the other a little there, using the same tool, they join perfectly. [2]

Some men tell me: “I don’t see eye to eye with my wife; we have opposite personalities. She has one temperament, I have another! How can God do such strange things? Couldn’t He have arranged a few things so that couples matched, and they were able to live more spiritually?” I tell them, “Don’t you understand that the harmony of God is hidden within a diversity of personalities? Different temperaments actually create harmony. Alas, if you had the same personalities! Think what would have happened if, for example, you both got angry easily: you would destroy your house. Or, consider if both of you had mild temperaments: you would sleep standing up! If you were both stingy you would get along, yes, but you would both end up in hell. Likewise, if both of you were open-handed, would you even be able to keep your house? No. You would disperse everything, and your children would be turned out to the streets. If a spoiled brat marries a spoiled brat, between themselves they get along fine, right? But, one day someone is going kill them! For this reason God arranges it so that a good person marries a spoiled brat, that the latter may be helped. It may be that he or she has a good disposition, but was never instructed correctly when young.”

Little differences in the characters or personalities of spouses actually help couples to create a harmonious family, for the one completes the other. In a car it is necessary to use the gas pedal to go forward, but also the brake pedal to stop. If the car only had brakes it wouldn’t go anywhere; and if it only had gears, it wouldn’t be able to stop. Do you know what I said to one couple? “Because you are similar, you don’t match!” They are both sensitive. If something happens at home, both of them lose it and start-up: The one, “Oh, what we suffer!” The other, “Oh, what we suffer!” In other words, the one causes the other to lose hope even more! Neither is able to comfort the other a little by saying, “Hold on, our situation is not that serious”. I’ve seen this in many couples.

When spouses have different personalities it helps in the raising of children even more. One spouse wants to put on the brakes a little, but the other says, “Give the children a little freedom”. If they both are overbearing they will lose their children. If, however, they leave them on their own, again their children will be lost. Therefore, when the parents have different personalities, the children enjoy a certain stability.

What I’m trying to say is that everything is needful. Naturally, one’s personality quirks shouldn’t go beyond their limits. Each spouse should help the other in his own way. If you eat a lot of sweets, you’ll want also to eat something a little salty. Or if you eat, let’s say, lots of grapes, you’ll want a little cheese to cut the sweetness. Vegetables, if they are very bitter, are not eaten. But a little bitterness helps, as does a little sourness. Some people, however, are like this: If someone is sour, he says: “Let everyone become sour like me.” And whoever is bitter says, “Let everyone become bitter.” Likewise, those who are salty say, “Everyone should become salty.” Bridges aren’t built like that! [3]

+ + +

PART IV: SPIRITUAL LIFE

CHAPTER I: Spiritual Life in the Family

The practice of virtue within the family

—Geronta, how can a husband become practiced in the virtues?

—God will give him opportunities. Many men, however, after asking God to give them opportunities to practice the virtues, grumble when they are faced with a certain difficulty. For example, sometimes the Good God, in His boundless love, and in order to provide practice in humility and patience, will take away his Grace from the wife, and she will begin acting outlandishly and treating the husband inconsiderately. Then the husband should not complain, but rather rejoice and thank God for the opportunity to struggle which He has given him. Or, a mother asks God to grant her patience. Her little child then comes in, and as soon as she has the table set for dinner, he pulls on the table cloth and everything spills on the floor. At such times it’s as if the child is saying to his mother: “Mama, be patient!”

In general, the difficulties which exist today in the world force those who desire to live a little spiritual life to be watchful. Just as, may God protect us, in a war the people are in a watchful state, I see the same thing happening now with whomever strives to live spiritually. Look how tough the poor children have it who are close to the Church! But the war, which exists because of the terrible environment in which they live, helps them, in a way, to stay awake. You see, in times of peace, when there are no difficulties, the majority of people slack off. Instead, they should utilize such serenity for spiritual growth—to cut off their shortcomings and cultivate the virtues.

Silence greatly helps in spiritual life. It is good for one to practice silence for about an hour a day: to test himself, to acknowledge his passions and to fight in order to cut them off and purify his heart. It is very good if there is a quiet room in the house which gives him the feeling of a monastic cell. There, “in secret” [4], he is able to do his spiritual maintenance, to study, and to pray. A little spiritual study done before prayer helps greatly. The soul warms up and the mind is transported to the spiritual realm. That’s why, when a person has many distractions during the day, he should rejoice if he has ten minutes for prayer, or even two minutes to read something, so as to drive away distractions.

—Geronta, is this perhaps too difficult for someone living in the world?

—No, there are laymen who live very spiritually—even like ascetics—with their fasting, their services, their prayer ropes, their prostrations—even with children and grandchildren. On Sunday they go to church, receive Holy Communion, and then return home again to their “cell,” just like the hermits who go to the Kyriakon [5] on Sunday, and afterwards keep silence in their cells. Glory to God! There are many such souls in the world. As a matter of fact, I know a certain family man who says the Jesus prayer unceasingly, wherever he is, and has continuous tears at prayer. His prayer has become self-activating, and his tears are sweet; they are tears of divine rejoicing. I also remember a certain worker on the Holy Mountain—Yanni was his name—who worked very hard, doing the work of two men. I had advised him to start saying the Jesus Prayer while working, and slowly but surely he grew accustomed to it. He came to me once and told me that he felt great joy when he said the prayer. “‘Dawn is breaking,’” I told him. Soon after I learned he had been killed by two drunks. How saddened I was! A few days later a certain monk was looking for a tool, but he couldn’t find it because Yanni had put it somewhere. That evening Yanni appeared to him in his sleep and told him where he had left it. He had attained such a spiritual state that enabled him to help others from the life hereafter.

How simple spiritual life is! If one loves God, if he acknowledges His great Sacrifice and benefactions and if he forces himself with discernment in imitating the Saints, he will quickly become holy. He attains humility and an understanding of his own wretchedness and his tremendous ungratefulness to God.

Prayer in the family

—Geronta, should the entire family do compline together at night? [6]

—The older family members should motivate the youngsters with their solemnity. They should do compline and say to the small children: “If you want, stay a little while.” When the children are somewhat bigger they can have a rule—for example, fifteen minutes for the older ones, and two to five minutes for the small children—then after their rule, as much as they want. If the parents make them stay for all of compline they’ll resent it. Parents shouldn’t pressure their children because they don’t yet understand the power and value of prayer. Parents, you could say, are able to eat beans and meat: hearty food. But when a little child is still only drinking milk, should they tell him to eat meat because it is strengthening? Maybe it is more strengthening, but the poor thing can’t even digest it. That’s why starting out they should give him little pieces of meat and broth, so that he’ll want more.

—Geronta, sometimes even the adults are so tired in the evening that they aren’t able to do compline.

—When adults are very tired or sick they should say half of compline or at least one “Our Father.” They should not completely bypass prayer. In wartime if you end up on a hill in the evening, surrounded by enemies, you let out a few shots to frighten the enemy, so they will not attack. Adults should also let out a few shots so as to scare the little demons away.

Prayer has great power within the family. I know two siblings who not only kept their parents—who had a big problem between them—from separating, but even caused them to be more in love. With us my father said: “You don’t know what you’re going to do; two times a day you must entrust the future to God, so as to know where you’ll end up.” Each morning and evening we would all pray together before the icons, father, mother and the children, ending with a prostration before the icon of Christ. When a problem arose in the family we would pray and it would clear up. I remember once, when our youngest brother got sick and my father said: “Come, let’s beg God to make him well or to take him, so that he won’t suffer anymore.” We all prayed together and he recovered.

Even at the table, we all sat together. First we prayed and then we would begin eating. If someone started to eat before the food was blessed we would say “he fornicated.” We considered a failure to remain temperate fornication. It destroys a family if each person comes home, at whatever hour he wants, and eats alone without reason.

Children and the spiritual life

Geronta, if a mother gives holy water to her child and he spits it out, what should she do?

—She should pray for her child. Maybe the way in which she gives the holy water to her child causes a reaction. For the child to be on the path of God the parents must also live right spiritually. Some parents who are religious strive to help their children to become good, not because they are concerned for the salvation of their souls, but because they what to have good children. In other words, they are more worried about what people will say about their child instead of whether they might go to hell. So how can God help? The aim is not for children to go to church through compulsion, but to love the church; not to do good through compulsion, but to feel the need to do good. The holy lives of parents instruct the souls of their children and they naturally follow. In this way they grow up piously, with health of both soul and body and without spiritual injuries. If parents force their children out of fear of God, He helps and the child is benefited. If, however, they do it out of egoism, then God does not help. Children are often troubled because of their parent’s pride.

—Geronta, some mothers ask us what prayer should a child of three or four years old do?

—You should tell them: “You are the mother; see how much your child can handle.” They shouldn’t give them a rule.

—Geronta, what if the little children get tired when their parents bring them here for vigils? [7]

—During Orthros they should let them out a little to relax, and during Divine Liturgy bring them back into the church.

Without forcing their children mothers must teach them to pray. Villagers in Cappadocia* intensely lived the ascetic tradition. They would take their children to hermitages, do prostrations and pray with tears, and in this way, the children learned how to pray. Chetes [8] would sometimes go by night to rob them; and when passing the chapels they would hear crying and stop in surprise. “OK, what’s going on?” they would say. “During the day they are all smiles and at night they cry?” They couldn’t understand what was going on.

Miracles happen through the prayers of small children. Whatever they ask of God He gives them because they are guileless and He hears their pure prayer. I remember one time our parents had gone out into the field and had left me in the house with my two younger siblings. The sky suddenly darkened and a torrential rainstorm began. “What will our parents do now?,” we said. “How will they get back home?” The two little ones began crying. “Come here,” I told them, “we will ask Christ to stop the rain.” The three of us knelt down before the family’s icons and prayed. In just a few minutes the rain stopped.

Parents must use discernment to help their children draw near to Christ from their early years, and from their childhood to live the joy on high—spiritual joy. When they start school they should learn, little by little, to read spiritual books to help themselves live spiritually. In this way they will become little angels, and their prayers will have greater boldness before God. Such children are spiritual heads of the home. The lives of saints especially help small children in their spiritual lives. As a small boy I found a little book of the lives of saints which they had back in those days. I went out into the forest to read and pray. I was flying with joy. From the age of ten to sixteen, when the Greek-Italian war began, I lived the spiritual life without restraint. Childhood joys are pure; they leave an imprint on a person that greatly affects him when he grows up. If children live spiritually they will live joyfully in this life, and in the next they will rejoice eternally with Christ.

Temptations on feast days

—Geronta, why do temptations often occur on feast days?

—Don’t you know? On feast days, Christ, the Panagia, and the Saints are joyful. They treat people, giving blessings and spiritual gifts. If parents give gifts when their children celebrate their namedays and kings release prisoners when a prince is born, why shouldn’t the Saints care for us on special occasions, too? Certainly the joy they give greatly endures and our souls are greatly helped. Knowing this the devil creates temptations in order to deprive people of the Divine gifts: they neither rejoice nor benefit from the feast. Sometimes you even see when a family is preparing to commune on a feast day, that the devil will send them a temptation to fight and then not only do they not commune, but they don’t even go to church! That’s how the little demon does it, so as to be deprived of all Divine help.

The same thing can be seen in our own monastic life. Many times the little demon—tempter that he is, because he knows from experience that we will be spiritually helped on some feast—will, beginning on the eve of the feast, create an atmosphere of temptation. For example, he might get us to quarrel with another brother, and then afterwards torment us in order to overpower us both spiritually and bodily. In this way he doesn’t allow us to benefit from the feast, with its joyous atmosphere of doxology. But the Good God helps us when He sees that we had not given occasion, but that this happened only by the envy of the evil one. And God helps us even more when we humbly reproach ourselves, blaming neither our brother nor even the devil, who hates everything good. For his work is this: to create scandals and spread evil—while man, as the image of God, should spread peace and goodness.

CHAPTER 2: Work and Spiritual Life

Work is a blessing

—Geronta, in the old days they would say, “Better to wear out your shoes rather than blankets.” What did they mean?

—They meant, “Better to wear out your shoes by working than to stay in bed and be lazy.” Work is a blessing, a gift of God. It gives energy to the body, refreshment to the nous. If God had not given us work, man would have become idle. Hard workers do not stop even in old age. If they stop working while they still have strength, they end up suffering from depression; this is death for them. I remember one little old man in Konitsa, almost ninety years old, who worked continuously. He finally died out in the fields, two hours from home.

Besides, the state of bodily comfort which some people seek is never permanent. They may forget their stress for a time—have their food, their sweets, their baths, their leisure. But, as soon as this is over, they seek another form of comfort. They are constantly anxious because everything leaves them wanting; they feel an emptiness, and their souls seek to be filled. He who wearies from work, however, has a constant joy, spiritual joy.

—Geronta, what if you have back problems and aren’t able to do just any work?

—Fine, but doesn’t the back need exercise? Doesn’t work that exercises the back help? Listen, I’ll tell you: “If someone eats, drinks, and sleeps but doesn’t work, he starts unraveling; he wants to sleep all the time because his body and nerves slacken. Little by little he comes to the point where he can’t do anything. As soon as he walks a little, he falls apart. Instead, if he works a little and moves around, his hands and feet become stronger. Notice that those who love work don’t sleep much, and they don’t sleep from fatigue—they might not get any sleep for a time, yet they keep their strength: work has seasoned them, and they became strong in body.

Especially for a young person, work is health. I have observed that some pampered children become tough and seasoned when they go into the military. The military is good for them. Naturally, this happened more in the old days. Today they are afraid to push the soldiers, because with a little strain the veins are constricted and they suffer from nervous shock. I tell parents to pay someone to allow their children to work for them, to promote their health—this serves to give them a job they like, so that they will learn to like work in general. For, a young person who is energetic also has brains, and if he doesn’t work he will become lazy. Of course, when he sees others succeeding he is confused by his egoism and can’t take pleasure in anything. He constantly has disturbing thoughts and his mind is muddled. Later the devil goes to him and says: “Loser! What a good-for-nothing you are! So and so became a professor, and that other guy has his own business making good money, but where will you end up?” This makes him feel hopeless. If he had worked, however, he would have acquired confidence in himself, in a good sense of the word. He would see that even he is able to get along, and his mind would stay occupied on his job and free him from disturbing thoughts. That way it’s a win-win.

Endnotes

* OCIC Ed.: Read about the life of these pious Cappadocians in The Elder Ieronymos of Aegina, by Peter Botsis (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2007).

  1. “Crowns are wont to be worn on the heads of bridegrooms, as a symbol of victory, foretelling that they approach the blessing (of Marriage) unconquered by pleasure.” St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the First Epistle to Timothy, Homily IV, PG 62, 546).
  2. Elder Paisios means that this work is done by the spiritual father and it is effective, only as long as the two spouses have the same spiritual father, in order that the sanding happens “using the same tool”.
  3. Obviously, the Elder is using a metaphor: “Bridges (i.e. relationships) aren’t build like that!”
  4. St. Matthew 6:4.
  5. The main church of a Skete, in which the ascetics from nearby cells gather on Sunday and feast days for common services. The name “Kyriakon” is derived from the Greek word for Sunday, “Kyriaki”.
  6. There is a tradition in Greece for pious families to do compline together each evening.
  7. This was asked at the Elder’s women’s monastery by one of his nuns.
  8. The “Chetes, primarily of Turkish and Kurdish descent, were irregular hordes of freed criminals who were organized into loose bands of “killing squads” in the Ottoman army. It was the Chetes who led the attack in the Armenian Genocide and Greek Population Exchange and became known as merciless and blood-thirsty outlaws whose number one joy was the screaming voices of violated women, children and dying Christians.

From the book Family Life, by Elder Paisios the Athonite (Souroti, Greece: Sacred Hesychastirion of St. John the Evangelist, 2002). © Copyright 2007, Father Luke Hartung, assistant Priest at St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church, Riverside, CA. No part of this may be reproduced without written permission. Father Luke regularly translates a portion of Elder Paisios’ book and emails it to those on his email list. If you would like to be added to this list, please contact him at frluke.hartung [at] gmail [dot] com. Posted 10/11/2007.