The Three Powers of the Soul and Their Curative Exercises
by St. Theophan the Recluse
In the soul we find three powers: the intellect, the will, the heart, or, as the Holy
Fathers say, the intellectual, desiring and incensive powers. Each of them is assigned
particular curative exercises by the holy ascetics. These related exercises are both
receptive and conducive to grace. They need not be contrived according to some theory, but
rather chosen from tested ascetic labors particularly suited to a given power:
For the mind
1) Reading and hearing the Word of God, the writings of the Holy Fathers and the lives
of the God-pleasers. 2) Studying and impressing upon yourself all the God-given truths in
brief statements (the catechesis). 3) Asking questions of those older and more
experienced. 4) Mutual informative discourse with friends.
For the will
1) Submission to the whole church rule. 2) Submission to civil order, or to family
duty, for they are conduits of God's will. 3) Obedience to God's will as manifested in
your fate. 4) Obeying your conscience in the doing of good deeds. 5) Subjecting yourself
to the spirit that is zealous to fulfill its vows.
For the heart
1) Attending holy Church services. 2) Prayer, as specified by the Church; home prayer
rule. 3) Using holy crosses, icons and other sacred substances and objects. 4) Observing
holy customs established and promoted by the Church....
There are three powers: the intellect, the will and the senses. Corresponding exercises
are given to them. They act directly to develop the powers, but in a way that does not
quell the spirit-to the contrary, it ignites the spirit more and more. The latter serves
as a measure and stabilizer to the former, which subjects itself to the latter to the
point of speechless submission or even total cessation.
Exercises that develop the intellect, and also warm the spiritual life
A Christian intellectual development occurs when all the truths of the Faith are
impressed so deeply into the intellect that the intellect's whole existence is made up of
these truths alone. When it begins to reason over something, it reasons according to what
it knows of the Christian truths, and would never make the slightest move without them.
The Apostle calls this keeping the image of a sound mind (II Tim. 1:7).
Exercises or work related to this are: reading and hearing the Word of God, patristic
literature, Lives of the Holy Fathers, mutual discourse and asking questions of those more
It is good to read or listen, better to have a mutual discourse, and even better to ask
questions of those more experienced.
The most fruit-bearing is the Word of God, then patristic literature and the Lives of
saints. Incidentally, it is needful to know that the Lives of saints are better for
beginners, patristic literature for the intermediate, and the Word of God for the perfect.
All of these are the sources of Truth as well as the means for drawing from them;
obviously, impressing them in the mind along with preserving the spirit of zeal also help.
Often one text will warm the spirit for more than a day. There are Lives of which the
mere remembrance is enough to inflame zeal. There are also passages in patristic writings
that inspire. Therefore we have this good rule: write down such passages and save them, in
case you need them later to warm your spirit.
Often neither internal nor external work helps-the spirit remains sleepy. Hasten to
read something from somewhere. If this does not help, run to someone to discuss it. The
latter performed with faith is rarely fruitless.
There are two kinds of reading: one-ordinary, almost mechanical, and
another-discriminating, according to spiritual need and advice. But the first kind is also
not useless. It is, as we have said already, what is simply repeated and not studied.
It is most necessary for everyone to have someone with whom he can discuss spiritual
matters-someone who already knows all our problems and to whom we can boldly reveal
everything on our soul. It is best if it is only one person; two is too many. Idle
conversations carried on only in order to pass the time should be avoided at all cost.
Here is a rule for reading:
Before reading you should empty your soul of everything. 
Arouse the desire to know about what is being read.
Turn prayerfully to God.
Follow what you are reading with attention and place everything in your open heart.
If something did not reach the heart, stay with it until it reaches.
You should of course read quite slowly.
Stop reading when the soul no longer wants to nourish itself with reading. That means
it is full. If the soul finds one passage utterly stunning, stop there and read no more.
The best time for reading the Word of God is in the morning, Lives of saints after the
mid-day meal, and Holy Fathers before going to sleep. Thus you can take up a little bit
During such occupations, you should continually keeping mind the main
goalimpressing the truth on yourself and awakening the spirit. If reading or
discourse does not bring this about, then they are but idle itchings of the tongue and
ears, or empty discussion. If it is done with intelligence, then the truths impress
themselves and rouse the spirit, and one thing aids the other. But if the reading or
discourse digresses from the proper image, then there is neither one nor the
othertruth is stuffed into the head like sand, and the spirit becomes cold and hard
smokes over and puffs up.
Impressing the spirit is not the same as searching for it. This requires only that you
clarify what the truth is, and hold it in your mind until they bond together. Let there be
no deductions or limitationsonly the face of truth.
The easiest method for this could lawfully be considered the following: the whole truth
is in the catechesis. Every morning take the truth from it and clarify it to yourself,
carry it in your mind and nourish yourself with it for as long as it feeds the soula
day, two days or longer. Do the same thing with another truth, and continue thus to the
end. This is a method that is easy and applicable to everyone. Those who do not know how
to read may ask for one truth and proceed from there.
We can see that the rule for everyone is this: impress the in Holy little truth in a
way that will awaken you. The methods for fulfilling this rule vary, and it is not at all
possible to prescribe the same one for everyone.
Thus, reading, listening and discourse that do not impress the truth or awaken the
spirit should be considered wrong, as they lead away from the truth. It is a sickness to
read many books out of curiosity alone, when only the mind follows what is being read,
without leading it to the heart or delighting in its flavor.
This is the science of dreaming; it is not creative, does not hasten success, but is
devastating and always leads to arrogance. All your work should be limited, as we have
said, to the following: clarify the truth and hold it in the mind until the heart tastes
of it. The Holy Fathers put it simply: remember it, hold it in the mind, and have it
always before your eyes.
Exercises for developing the will, focusing also on awakening the spirit
Developing the will means impressing upon it good dispositions or
virtueshumility, meekness, patience, continence, submissiveness, helpfulness and so
onso that in blending with and grafting onto the will, the virtues would eventually
constitute its very nature, and when something is undertaken by the will, it would be
undertaken according to their inspiration and in their spirit, and they would govern and
reign over our deeds.
Such a disposition of will is the safest and most stable. But inasmuch as it is
contrary to the spirit of sin, its achievement requires toil and sweat. That is why the
activity related to this is for the most part directed against the chief infirmity of the
will, that isself-will, unsubmissiveness, and intolerance of the yoke.
This infirmity is healed by submission to the will of God, with denial of your own and
of any other. The will of God is revealed through the various forms of obedience that each
person carries. Its first and most important requirement is observing the laws or
commandments according to each person's duty or calling; next is observing the rubrics of
the Church, the dictates of civil and family order, the dictates of circumstance that are
wrought by providential will, and the demands of a zealous spiritall done with
discernment and counsel.
All of this is within the field of righteous deeds which is open to anyone and
everyone. Therefore, know only how to arrange this for yourself and you will not
experience a dearth of means for developing the will.
For this you must clarify for yourself the sum of righteous deeds that are possible for
you to doin your station, calling and circumstancestogether with an assessment
of what, when, how, in what measure, and what can and should be done.
Having clarified all this, determine the general outline of the deeds and their order,
so that nothing you do would be accidental. Remember at the same time that this is only an
outlinedetails may change according to what is required under the circumstances. Do
everything with discernment.
Therefore it is best to daily go over all the possible occurrences and deeds.
Those who are used to doing righteous deeds never pre-determine what they are going to
do, but do always what God sends them, for everything comes from God. He reveals His own
determinations to us through different occurrences.
By the way, all of this is only deeds. Doing them only straightens you out. In order to
flow also into virtues through them, you must forcefully keep a true spirit of good works.
To be more precise, do everything with humility and fear of God according to God's will
and to His glory. He who does something out of self-reliance, with boldness and audacity,
out of self-gratification or man-pleasing, no matter how righteous the works may be, only
fosters within himself an evil spirit of self-righteousness, arrogance and pharisaism.
Carrying a right spirit, you should also be in remembrance of the laws, especially the
law of graduality and constancy; that is, always begin with the small and ascend to what
is higher. Then, once you have begun, do not stop.
By this you can avoid:
Embarrassment that you are not perfect, for perfection does not come all at once.
The time will come.
Thoughts that you have already done everything; for there is no end to the heights.
Arrogant aspirations, ascetic feats beyond your strength.
The last stage is when good deeds have become natural for you, and the law no longer
weighs upon you as a burden.
The one who achieves this most successfully is one who is blessed with the grace of
living with an actively virtuous man, especially if he is being taught this science. He
will not have to repeat and re-do every failure he has allowed through ignorance and
inexperience. As they say, even if you do not read or intellectualize, only find a
reverent man, and you will quickly learn the fear of God. This is applicable to any
Incidently, it is good to choose one outstanding virtuous work according to Lour
character and station, and stick with it unswervinglyit will be the foundation or
basis from which you can go on to others. It will save you in times of weaknessit is
a strong reminder and quickly inspires. The most reliable of all is almsgiving, which
leads to the King.
This concerns only works and not dispositions, which should have their own inner
framework that is founded on the spirit, and are in a certain way independent of the
consciousness and free willthey are as the Lord grants. All the saints accept the
beginning of this to be the fear of God, and the end to be love. In the middle are all the
virtues, one building upon another. Although they are perhaps not all the same, they are
inevitably built on humble, compunctionate repentance and sorrow over sins, which are the
essence of virtue. A description of each virtueits nature, activity, degrees of
perfection, and deviations from themis the subject of special books and patristic
instructions. Get to know all of this through reading.
This kind of virtuous activity directly develops the will and impresses the virtuous
into it. At the same time it also keeps the spirit in constant tension. Just as friction
causes warmth, so do good works warm the heart. Without them a good spirit also grows cold
and evaporates. This is what usually befalls those who do not do anything, or those who
limit themselves to merely not doing evil and unrighteousness. No, we must also find good
works to do. Incidently, there are also those who make too much fuss over their works, and
therefore quickly exhaust themselves and dissipate the spirit. Everything should be done
Development of the heart
Developing the heart means developing within it a taste for things holy, divine, and
spiritual, so that when it finds itself amidst such things it would feel as though it were
in its element. Finding them sweet and blessed, it would be indifferent to all else, with
no taste for anything else; and even moreit would find anything else revolting. All
of man's spiritual activity centers in the heart. The truths are impressed in it, and good
dispositions are rooted into it. But its main work is developing a taste for the
spiritual, as we have shown. When the mind sees the whole spiritual world and its
different components, various good beginnings ripen in the will. The heart, under their
influence, should taste sweetness in all of this and radiate warmth. This delight in the
spiritual is the first sign of the regeneration of a soul deadened by sin. Therefore the
heart's development is a very important point even in the early stages.
The work directed at it is all of our Church services in all formscommon and
personal, at home and in churchand it is mainly achieved through the spirit of
prayer moving within it.
Church services, that is, all the daily services, together with the entire arrangement
of the church's icons, candles, censing, singing, chanting, movements of the clergy, as
well as the services for various needs;  then services in the home, also using
ecclesiastical objects such as sanctified icons, holy oil, candles, holy water, the Cross,
and incenseall of these holy things together acting upon all the sensessight,
hearing, smell, touch, and tasteare the cloths that wipe clean the senses of
a deadened soul. They are the strongest and the only reliable way to do it. The soul
becomes deadened by the spirit of the world, and possessed by sin that lives in the world.
The entire structure of our Church services, with their tone, meaning, power of faith, and
especially the grace concealed within them, have an invincible power to drive away the
spirit of the world. In freeing the soul from the world's onerous influence, it allows the
soul to breathe freely and to taste the sweetness of spiritual freedom. Walking into
church we walk into a completely different world, are influenced by it, and change
according to it. The same thing happens when we surround ourselves with holy objects.
Frequent impressions of the spiritual world more effectively penetrate within and more
quickly bring about a transformation of the heart. Thus:
1) It is necessary to establish a pattern of going to church as often as possible,
usually to Matins, Liturgy and Vespers. Have a longing for this, and go there at the first
opportunityat least once a dayand if you can, stay without leaving. Our church
is heaven on earth. Hasten to church with the faith that it is a place where God dwells,
where He Himself promised to quickly hear prayers. Standing in church, be as if you are
standing before God in fear and reverence, which you express through patient standing,
prostrations, and attention to the services without wandering thoughts, relaxation or
2) You must not forget other servicespersonal services, be they in church or at
home. Neither must you neglect your home prayers with all their churchly tone. You should
remember that home services are only a supplement to church services and not a
replacement. The Apostle, commanding us not to deprive ourselves of a synaxis, informed us
that all the power of services belong to common worship.
3) You must observe all Church solemnities, rituals, customs, and rubrics, and cover
yourself with them in all their forms, so that you would always abide in a particular
atmosphere. This is easy to do. Such is the nature of our Church. Only accept it with
But what gives the most power to church services is a prayerful spirit. Prayer is an
all-encompassing obligation, as well as an all-effective means. Through it the truths of
the faith are also impressed in the mind and good morals into the will. But most of all it
enlivens the heart in its feelings. The first two go well only when this one thing
[prayer] is present. Therefore prayer should begin to be developed before anything else,
and continued steadily and tirelessly until the Lord grants prayer to the one who prays.
The beginnings of prayer are applied at conversion itself, for prayer is the yearning
of the mind and heart towards God, which is what happens at conversion. But
inattentiveness or inability can extinguish this spark. Then right away you should begin
the form of activity that we have already discussed, with the aim of kindling a prayerful
spirit. Besides conducting services and participating in them, as we have described, the
closest thing related to this is personal prayer, wherever and however it is performed.
There is only one rule for thisaccustom yourself to praying. For this you must:
1) Choose a rule of prayerevening, morning and daily prayers.
2) Start with a short rule at first, so that your unaccustomed spirit will nor form an
aversion to this labor.
3) Pray always with fear, diligence and all attention.
4) This requires: standing, prostrations, kneeling, making the sign of the Cross,
reading, and at times singing.
5) The more often you do such prayer the better. Some people pray a little every hour.
6) The prayers you should read are written in the prayer book. But it is good to get
used to one or another, so that the spirit would ignite each time you begin it.
7) The rule of prayer is simple: standing at prayer, with fear and trembling say it as
if you were speaking into God's ear, accompanying it with the sign of the Cross,
prostrations and failing down, corresponding to the movement of the spirit.
8) Once you have chosen a rule you should always fulfill it, but this does not prevent
you from adding something according to the heart's desire.
9) Reading and singing out loud, in a whisper, or silently is all the same, for the
Lord is near. But sometimes it is better to pray one way, other times another.
10) You should firmly keep in mind the limits of your prayers. It is a good prayer that
ends with your falling down before God with the feeling that Thou Who knowest the
hearts, save me.
11) There are stages of prayer. The first stage is bodily prayer, with reading,
standing and prostrations. If the attention wanders, the heart does not feel, and there is
no eagerness; this means there is no patience, toil or swear. Regardless of this, set your
limits and pray. This is active prayer. The second stage is attentive prayer: the mind
gets used to collecting itself at the hour of prayer, and says all with awareness, without
being stolen away. The attention blends with the written words and repeats them as its
own. The third stage is prayer of the feelingsthe attention warms the heart, and
what was thought with attention becomes feeling in the heart. In the mind was a
compunctionate word, in the heart it is compunction; in the mind-forgiveness, in the
hearta feeling of its necessity and importance. Whoever has passed on to feeling
prays without words, for God is a God of the heart. This, therefore, is the summit of
prayer's development: while standing in prayer, to from feeling to feeling. Reading may
stop at this, just as may thought; then there is only abiding in feeling with the known
signs of prayer. Such prayer comes very little at first. The prayerful feeling comes over
you in church or at home.... This is the common advice of the saintsdo not let this
leave your attention: when the feeling is present, cease all other activity and stand in
it. St. John of the Ladder says: "An angel is praying with you." Attention to
this manifestation of prayer ripens the development of prayer, and inattention decimates
both the development and the prayer.
12) However, no matter how perfect one has become in prayer, the prayer rule should
never be abandoned but should always be read as prescribed and always begun with active
prayer. Mental prayer should come with it, and then prayer of the heart. Without the rule,
prayer of the heart is lost, and the person will think that he is praying, but in fact he
13) When the prayerful feeling ascends to ceaselessness, then spiritual prayer
beginsa gift of the Spirit of God which prays for us. This is the last stage of
attainable prayer. But it is said that there is also prayer that is incomprehensible to
the mind, or surpasses the limits of awareness (as described by St. Isaac the Syrian).
14) The easiest means for ascending to ceaseless prayer is the habit of doing the Jesus
Prayer and rooting it in yourself. The most experienced men of spiritual life who were
enlightened by God found this to be the one simple and all-effective means for confirming
the spirit in all spiritual activities, as well as in all spiritual ascetic life; and they
left detailed guidelines for it in their instructions.
By laboring in asceticism we seek purification of the heart and renewal of the spirit.
There are two ways to find this: the first is the way of activity, that is, performing
those ascetic labors that we have previously outlined; and the second is that of the
mind-turning the mind to God. In the first way the soul is purified and receives God, in
the second God burns away all impurity and comes to abide in the purified soul.
Considering the latter as belonging to the Jesus Prayer alone, St. Gregory the Sinaite
says: "We acquire God by either activity, labor, or the artful calling on the Name of
Jesus." He then supposes that the first way is longer than the second; the second is
quicker and more effective. Others after him have given first place to the Jesus Prayer
among podvigs. It illuminates, strengthens, enlivens, conquers all enemies visible and
invisible, and leads us to God. That is how powerful and effective it is! The name of the
Lord Jesus is the treasury of blessings, strength and life in the spirit.
From this it is evident that any penitent, or anyone beginning to seek the Lord, can
and should be taught complete instructions in doing the Jesus Prayer. From there he can be
brought into all other practices, because through this he will become strong more quickly,
ripen sooner spiritually and enter the interior world. Not knowing this, other people, or
at least a large part of them, stop with bodily activities and those of the soul, and
waste nearly all their labor and time.
This activity is called an "art." It is very simple. Standing with awareness
and attention in the heart, pronounce ceaselessly: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me," without picturing any sort of image or face, but with faith
that the Lord will see you and attend to you.
In order to become strong in this, you should assign a time in the morning or the
eveningfifteen minutes, a half hour, or morehowever much you can, just for
saying this prayer. It should be after morning or evening prayers, standing or sitting.
This will place the beginnings of a habitual practice.
Then during the day, force yourself minute-by-minute to say it, no matter what you are
It will become more and more habitual, and then it will start working as if by itself
during any work or occupation. The more resolutely you take it up, the faster you will
Your awareness should be kept unfailingly in the heart, and during the practice your
breath should lighten as a result of the tension with which you practice it. But the most
important condition is faith that God is near and hears us. Say the prayer into God's ear.
This habitual practice will draw warmth into the spirit, later enlightenment, then
ecstasy. But acquiring all of this sometimes takes years.
At first this prayer is only active prayer, just like any other activity. Then it
becomes mental prayer, and finally it takes root in the heart.
Some have gone astray from the right path through this prayer. Therefore it should be
learned from someone who knows it. Deception comes mostly from placing the attention on
the head rather than the chest.
Whoever has the attention centered in the heart is safe. Even safer is the one who
falls down before God every hour in contrition, with the prayer that he be delivered from
The Holy Fathers gave detailed instructions on this activity. Therefore, whoever takes
up this work should read these instructions and throw out all else. The best instructions
are by St. Hesychius, St. Gregory the Sinaite, St. Philotheus
of Sinai, St. Theoleptus, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Nilus of Sora, Hieromonk
Dorotheus, in the prologue to Elder Barsanuphius, and in the life of St. Paisius.
Whoever becomes practiced in this, having gone through everything set forth above, is a
practitioner of Christian life. He will quickly ripen in his purification and in Christian
perfection, and will acquire his desired peace in being with God.
This is the activity for the powers of the soul, which are adaptable to the movement of
the spirit. Here we see how every one of them is adapted to the life of the spirit, or to
spiritual feeling. But they also lead to the fortification of the primary conditions for
being within, namely: mental activitythe concentration of attention; activity of the
willvigilance; activity of the heartsoberness. Prayer covers them all and
encompasses them all. Even the production of it is nothing other than the interior work we
have previously described.
All of these activities are assigned for the development of the powers of the soul in
the spirit of a new life. This is the same as infusing the soul with spirit, or elevating
it to the spirit and blending with it. In fallenness they are united to a contrary
purpose. At conversion the spirit is renewed, but in the soul there still remains a cruet
streak of unsubmissiveness and an aversion to the spirit and everything spiritual. These
activities, penetrated with spiritual elements, cause the soul to grow into the spirit and
blend with it. It is clear from this how essential these activities are and what a
disservice those people do to themselves who abandon them. They themselves are the reason
that their labors are fruitless. They sweat but see no fruit; they soon grow cold, and
then everything comes to an end.
But we must remember that all the fruits of these labors come from the spirit of zeal
and quest. It conducts the renewing power of grace through these activities and brings
down life into the soul. Without it, all these activities are empty, cold, lifeless, and
dry. Reading, prostrations, services and everything else are unfruitful when there is no
inner spirit. They can teach vainglory and pharisaism, which become its sole support. This
is why someone who has no spirit falls away when he meets with any opposition. Why, they
themselves are a torture. For the spirit transfers power to the soul, which makes the soul
so well disposed to these activities that it can not get enough of them and wants to have
recourse to them always.
Thus it is extremely necessary when doing these activities to always bear in mind that
the spirit of life must burn within, and we must in humility and pain of heart fall down
before God our Savior. This state is fed and preserved best of all by prayer and prayerful
activity. We must watch that we not stop with the activities alone just because they also
nourish the soul. This might cause us to remain with them in soul at the cost of the
spirit. This happens perhaps most often with reading, and generally any study and
integration of the truth.
1. That is, of thoughts and cares that distract [trans.].
2. Such as Molebens, Pannikhidas, etc. [trans.].
From The Path to Salvation, trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose and the Saint
Herman of Alaska Brotherhood (Platina, 1996), pp. 242, 247-261.