Since the days of the early Church, it has been difficult to find a good spiritual guide. Even then, only a few men and women could be found who had the personal experience, knowledge of Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, and spiritual discernment to guide others.
Because such spiritual guides are difficult to find, Nil Sorsky tells us, the Fathers of the Church came up with a simple remedy: Let the Lord become your guide through the study of Scripture.
Through the study of Scripture, he says, you will learn from the Lord the discipline required to control your feelings, labor in prayer in the heart, and to purify your mind of the passions. And through the study of the holy writings of the Fathers, you will find trustworthy instruction from those who, through their own study of Scripture, became true persons and living images and likenesses of Christ.
Nil Sorksy (c. 1443-1508), also known as Nilus of Sora, describes this remedy at the beginning of his monastic rule, or Ustav, the result of his own deep ascetic experience. The rule, along with his short work on tradition and some letters, can be found in an excellent translation by George A. Maloney, S.J., Nil Sorsky: The Complete Writings (Paulist Press).
Nil wrote his rule to give to others the wisdom he had gleaned from the study of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church who had traveled this road before him.
Nil, who is venerated as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, began his religious life as a monk at the Lavra of Kirillo-Belozersky in Northern Russia, once one of the largest in Russia. He then traveled to Constantinople and to Mount Athos, where he stayed for several years. Eventually, he returned to Russia and founded a monastic community based on his experience on Mount Athos and became a highly sought out spiritual guide.
In his rule, Nil condenses and synthesizes the essence of the spiritual wisdom built on the foundation of Sacred Scripture and found in the Fathers. The comments from the Fathers he includes are those he has found helpful as “a reminder to us to imitate them, even if it be only in an insignificant way.”
He teaches not as a master to disciples, he writes in his short work tradition, but as a follower of the “One teacher, our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who has given us the Sacred Scriptures” and who “taught and sent the holy Apostles and venerable Fathers to teach the way of salvation to the human race.” His role, he says, is to simply explain these writings to those who wish to be saved.
Maloney tells us that at Lavra of Kirillo-Belozersky Nil was probably guided in his reading of the Fathers by the abbot, Paisy Jaroslavov, who was an advocate of the hesychastic ideal of continual prayer.
The Fathers Nil probably read with the greatest attention and intensity were Nil of Sinai, Symeon the New Theologian, John Climacus, and Gregory of Sinai. He refers to each in his rule, as well as a number of others.
Nil writes about prayer, contemplation, silence as a means to battling anxiety, battling the passions, renunciation, and detachment, and the gift of holy tears to those filled with sorrow and compunction. He is especially good at explaining how to do battle with the vices.
His rule gives us essentially the writings of an experienced guide who speaks directly to us, as if we were receiving instruction one on one.
At times, Nil breaks into prayer to make a point, as with this section of a prayer made as part of a reflection on giving an account of your life before the Lord when he judges you:
“Have mercy on me, O Master, and do not let my soul ever look upon the ugly countenances of the evil demons, but let your radiant and most glorious angels receive me. You have authority to forgive sins. Forgive me my sins. Let my sin never again be before you because of my weakness I have sinned in word and in deed and in thought, deliberately and indeliberately. May I turn toward you when I am divested of my body and not be found with any filth on the image of my soul.”
At other times he turns to the prayers of Fathers, as with this prayer for the gift of holy tears by St. Ephrem the Syrian:
“Give, O Master, to me, unworthy though I am, the gift of continued tears in order to enlighten my heart so that I may pour out fountains of tears with sweetness in pure prayer as the long listing of my sins so demands such poor tears so that the fires of retribution for my sins may be extinguished by this simple weeping.”
Any Christian without a guide who is seeking authentic spiritual instruction will find Nil’s rule an excellent companion. Those with a good guide will find this work a compact source of enlightened thought on the Christian life.