St. John's spiritual diary, published under the title "My Life in Christ", consists of a great number of brief entries on a variety of subjects, in no particular order; the theological headings under which the excerpts of these selections —from "A Treasury of Russian Spirituality"— are classified; are those of the English editors Bickersteth and Illingworth, who abridged the first English translation, by E. E. Gulaeff.
Those who are trying to lead a spiritual life have to carry on a most skilful and difficult warfare, through their thoughts every moment of their life — that is, a spiritual warfare; it is necessary that our whole soul should have every moment a clear eye, able to watch and notice the thoughts entering our heart from the evil one and repel them; the hearts of such men should be always burning with faith, humility, and love; otherwise the subtlety of the Devil finds an easy access to them, followed by a diminution of faith, or entire unbelief, and then by every possible evil, which it will be difficult to wash away even by tears. Do not, therefore, allow your heart to be cold, especially during prayer, and avoid in every way cold indifference. Very often it happens that prayer is on the lips, but in the heart cunning, incredulity, or unbelief, so that by the lips the man seems near to God, whilst in his heart he is far from Him. And, during our prayers, the evil one makes use of every means to chill our hearts and fill them with deceit in a most imperceptible manner to us. Pray and fortify yourself, fortify your heart.
Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it: where there is no struggle, there is no virtue; where there are no temptations for faithfulness and love, it is uncertain whether there is really any faithfulness and love for the Lord. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations.
Do not believe your flesh when it grows weak and refuses to serve you, on the pretence of not being sufficiently strengthened by food. This is a delusion. Overcome it; pray fervently, and you will see that the weakness of your body was false, imaginary, not real: you will see in truth that "not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God." Do not put your trust in bread.
The crucified flesh reconciles itself with the spirit and with God; whilst the flesh that is cherished, that is abundantly and daintily fed, fights hard against the spirit and against God, and becomes wholly an abomination of sin. It does not want to pray, and, in general, rebels against God by blasphemy, for instance, and estranges itself from God. This is from experience. Therefore, "they that are Christ’s have crucified their flesh, with the vices and concupiscences."
Do not suffer, Lord, that even for an instant I may do the will of Thine and mine enemy — the Devil; but grant that I may continually do Thy will, alone the will of my God and my King: Thou alone, my true King by Whom all kings reign, grant that I may ever obey Thee, reverence Thee truly and firmly. "Come let us adore and fall down and kneel before the Lord Who made us"; "serve ye the Lord in fear; and rejoice unto him with trembling."
Wonderful is the power of faith! Only the lively thought of God — only heartfelt faith in Him — is required, and He is with me; only hearty repentance for sins, with faith in Him, is required, and He is with me; one good thought, and He is with me; a pious feeling, and He is with me. But the Devil enters into me through impure, evil, blasphemous thoughts, through doubt, fear, pride, irritability, malice, avarice, envy; therefore his power over me entirely depends upon myself; if only I keep watch over myself, and continually preserve in my mind the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, with faith and love, he will be powerless to do me any harm.
There is no need to ask any one whether we ought to spread or propagate the Glory of God, either by writing, or by word, or by good works. This we are obliged to do according to our power and possibility. We must make use of our talents. If you think much about such a simple matter, then, perhaps, the Devil may suggest to you such foolishness as that you need only be inwardly active.
Do not only do your work when you wish to, but do it then, especially, when you do not wish to. Understand that this applies to every ordinary worldly matter, as likewise and especially to the work of the salvation of your soul-to prayer, to reading God’s word and other salutary books, to attending Divine service, to doing good works, whatever they may be, to preaching God’s word. Do not obey the slothful, deceitful, and most sinful flesh; it is eternally ready to rest, and to lead us into everlasting destruction through temporal tranquillity, and enjoyment. "In the sweat of thy face," it is said, "shalt Thou eat bread." O miserable soul, "carefully cultivate the talent granted unto thee," sings the Church. "The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away," says our Lord and Saviour.
Be moderate in all religious works, for moderation, even in virtue, corresponding to your powers, according to circumstances of time, place, and preceding labour, is prudent and wise. It is well, for instance, to pray with a pure heart, but as soon as there is no correspondence between the prayer and your powers (energy), with the various circumstances of place and time, with your preceding labours, then it ceases to be a virtue. Therefore the apostle Peter says, "Add to virtue knowledge" (that is, do not be carried away by the heart only); "and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience."
Watch yourselves — your passions, especially in your home life, where they appear freely, like moles in a safe place. Outside our own home, some of our passions are usually screened by other more decorous passions, whilst at home there is no possibility of driving away these black moles that undermine the integrity of our soul.
Speak and do everything right undoubtingly, boldly, firmly, and decidedly. Avoid doubts, timidity, languor, and indecision. "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love." Our Lord is the Lord of powers.
Idle talk, or amusement with trifles in the society of guests, deprives the heart of faith, of the fear of God, and of love for God. Guests are a scourge for a pious heart. Of course, it is understood that I refer to guests who only occupy themselves with trifles. Serious, religiously minded guests are very different.
"He that gathereth not with Me, scattereth." It is necessary to advance in the spiritual life, and ascend higher and higher; to increase more and more the stores of our good works. If we remain stationary at one point of mortal perfection, upon one step of the Christian ascent, it is equal to our going back; if we do not gather, it is equal to scattering.
The inner man, amidst worldly vanity, amidst the darkness of his flesh, is not so bound by the temptations of the evil one, and looks out more freely in the morning just after waking up, as a fish sometimes throws itself up playfully on the surface of the water. All the remaining time he is enveloped in almost impenetrable darkness, his eyes are covered with a bandage, which conceals from him the true state of things spiritual and physical. Take advantage of these morning hours, which are the hours of a new life, or of a life renewed by temporary sleep. They show us in part that state in which we shall be when we shall rise up renewed on that great and universal morning of the nightless day of resurrection, or when we shall rid ourselves of this mortal body.
During the night our soul is free from worldly vanities, and therefore the spiritual world can act upon it more freely, and it is free to receive spiritual impressions; so that if the man is a righteous one, his thoughts and the inclinations of his heart are the thoughts and the inclinations of the Lord Himself, or of the Angels and Saints; whilst if he is an unrepentant sinner, they are the thoughts and inclinations of the Devil himself.
In ordinary human knowledge, we learn some subject once thoroughly, and often know it well during the whole of our lifetime without our knowledge of it becoming obscured. But in the matter of religion and faith this is not so; we think that once we have learnt, felt, and touched it, the subject will always remain clear, tangible, and beloved of our soul; but it is not so: it will a thousand times become obscured to us, removed from us, and will as it were vanish from us, so that at times we feel quite indifferent to the object by which we used to live and breathe, and it will sometimes be necessary to clear the way to it for ourselves by sighs and tears, in order to see it clearly again, to grasp and embrace it with our heart. This is caused by sin.
The carnal man does not understand the spiritual blessedness that proceeds from prayer and virtue, and cannot comprehend even in a small degree what the blessedness in the next world will be. He does not know anything higher than earthly carnal happiness, and considers future blessings as imaginary visions. But the spiritual man knows by experience the blessedness of the virtuous soul, and fore-tastes future blessedness in his heart.
If any thought is life to the heart, then it is truth; if, on the contrary, it is anguish and death to the heart, then it is a lie. Our Lord is peace and life, and He dwells in our hearts by peace and life.
Peace is the integrity and health of the soul; to lose peace is to lose spiritual health.
In what does the life of a Christian consist? In having nothing in the heart but Christ, or, if possessing earthly blessings, in not in the least attaching himself to them, but in clinging with the whole heart to Christ.
I myself am all infirmity, misery. God is my strength. This conviction is my highest wisdom, making me blessed.
Truth is the foundation of everything that has been created. Let truth be also the foundation of all your works (both inward and outward), and especially the foundation of your prayers. Let all your life, all your works, all your thoughts, and all your desires be founded upon truth.
How must we look upon the gifts of intellect, feeling, and freedom? With the intellect we must learn to know God in the works of His creation, revelation, providence, and in the destinies of men; with the heart we must feel God’s love, His most heavenly peace, the sweetness of His love, we must love our neighbour, sympathise with him in joy and in sorrow, in health and in sickness, in poverty or in wealth, in distinction and in low estate (humiliation); we must use freedom, as a means, as an instrument for doing as much good as possible, and for perfecting ourselves in every virtue, so as to render unto God fruits a hundredfold.
Let all knowledge relating to religion or faith be as though always new to you — that is, having the same importance, holiness, and interest.
What does to seek distraction mean? It means to wish somehow to fill the sickly emptiness of the soul, which was created for activity, and which cannot bear to be idle.
Remember that the intellect is the servant of the heart, which is our life; if it leads the heart to truth, peace, joy, and life, then it fulfils its destination, it is the truth; but if it leads the heart to doubt, disturbance, torment, despondency, darkness, then it does not fulfil its destination and is absolutely false ("science, falsely so called"). If the heart feels peace, joy, ease from faith in anything, this is quite sufficient; it is unnecessary, then, to require from the reason proofs of the truth of such an object; it is undoubtedly true, the heart asserts it by its life, for the purpose of all investigations is truth and life.
Do not forget yourself in looking upon the beauty of the human face, but look upon the soul; do not look upon the man’s garment (the body being his temporary garment), but look upon him who is clothed in it. Do not admire the magnificence of the mansion, but look upon the dweller who lives in it and what he is; otherwise, you will offend the image of God in the man, will dishonour the King by worshipping His servant and not rendering unto Him even the least of the honour due to Him. Also, do not look upon the beauty of the printing of a book, but look upon the spirit of the book; otherwise you will depreciate the spirit and exalt the flesh; for the letters are the flesh, and the contents of the book the spirit. Do not be allured by the melodious sounds of an instrument or of a voice, but by their effect upon the soul, or by the words of the song, consider what their spirit is: if the sounds produce upon your soul tranquil, chaste, holy feelings, then listen to them and feed your soul with them; whilst, if they give rise in your soul to passions, then leave off listening to them, and throw aside both the flesh and the spirit of the music.
In educating, it is extremely dangerous to develop only the understanding and intellect, and not pay attention to the heart. We must, above all, pay attention to the heart, for the heart is life, but life corrupted by sin. It is necessary to purify this source of life, to kindle in it the pure flame of life, so that it shall burn and not be extinguished; and shall direct all the thoughts, desires, and tendencies of the man through all his life. Society is corrupted precisely through the want of Christian education.
It is time that Christians should understand the Lord, should understand what He requires of us; namely, a pure heart. "Blessed are the pure in heart." Listen to His sweetest voice in the Gospel. The true life of our heart is Christ ("Christ liveth in me"). Let all of you learn wisdom of the Apostle. This should be our common problem: to bring Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith.
In many worldly magazines and newspapers, the number of which has so greatly increased, there breathes an earthly spirit, frequently impious, whilst the Christian, in his hope, is a citizen not only of the earth, but also of heaven, and, therefore, he ought also to meditate upon heavenly things. The heathen writings of antiquity were, it would seem, often better and purer (Cicero, for instance), higher in their foundation and motive, than some writings of Christian peoples. The Personal Word of the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, is continually and greatly offended by Christian people, who are gifted with speech, and ought to be God-like, both in their speech and writings, whilst now their words are often wasted in vain, and even tempt the Christian, who is turned aside by worldly writings from reading the Word of God and the writings of the Holy Fathers. The editors and publishers of worldly magazines and newspapers ensnare and entice the flock of Christ by the incense of flattering words. O Word of God! What answer shall we give at Thy terrible Judgment?
Here is a society of men of the world: they go on talking and talking, for the greater part amusing themselves with trifles, and there is no mention of God — the common Father of all — of His love for us, of the future life, of recompense; why is it so? Because they are ashamed to speak of God. But what is still more surprising is that even persons deeming themselves pious, themselves luminaries, seldom speak of God, of Christ the Saviour, of the preciousness of time, of abstinence, of the resurrection from the dead, of judgment, of future bliss and everlasting torments, either in their family circle or amongst men of the world, but often spend their time in futile conversations, games, and occupations! This is, again, because they are ashamed to converse upon such subjects, being afraid to weary others, or fearing that they themselves may not be able to converse heartily upon spiritual subjects. O adulterous and sinful world! Woe unto thee at the day of judgment by the universal and impartial Judgel! "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." Yes, the Lord and Creator of all is not received by us! He is not received into our houses or into our conversations; or, else, when a man reads a religious book or prays aloud, why does he sometimes do so as if against his will, reluctantly, his tongue hesitating? His mouth speaketh not out of the abundance of the heart, but out of straitness and emptiness it can scarcely speak at all. Why is this so? It proceeds from the neglect of reading books and of prayer, and from false shame sown in the heart by the Devil. What miserable creatures we men are! We are ashamed of that which ought to be regarded as the highest bonour. O ungrateful and evil-natured creatures! What torments do we not deserve for such conduct!