I wished you a Happy New Year in passing, and then it occurred to me to give you a special wish for it. What, specifically? That you become new. New in what way? In the way that a new dress is new: Everything is in its place, there is not the slightest little spot or wrinkle; it billows with freshness. That is what I wish for your soul to be like. You, in body, like the dress that we are talking about, fresh from the needle, will be completely new. Our soul, however, even upon its arrival in the world, brings the old; if this oldness is not removed from it, then it will remain old, without having tasted the new. Vanity and passions-that is what is old in the soul. Drive these out, and you will become new.
A New Year's Wish from Theophan the Recluse
I will tell you a legend, and it will become clear to you what this is all about. A certain man lived somewhere faraway in the desert. His internal organs became diseased, either his lungs, his heart, or his liver, or maybe all of them at once. The pain made him feel as if he were going to die. He could not expect human help from anywhere, and so he turned to God with the most intense prayer. The Lord heard him. One night after falling asleep he saw a vision. Two angels came with knives, cut him open, took out the ailing parts, cleaned them, washed them and anointed them with something. Then they put everything back in its place, sprinkled something over him, and everything healed, as if he had not even been cut open. When he awakened, the elder got up entirely healthy, as if he had never been ill; he was new like a youth in the flower of his strength. Do you see what I wish for you? That everything be purified in your soul, that everything that is diseased and old be cast away, that everything conducive to health and renewal be put in its place and sprinkled with living water. And that it become new, fresh, full of bright and joyous life. I told this story to someone who labours over himself. When he heard it, he responded with enthusiasm, "Oh, if only the angels would come and do for my soul what they did for the body of the elder!"
In this response you can hear both a prayer and also a desire to shift that which is supposed to be done through one's own labours to someone else. For such a crafty thought is not alien to our heart; we know that we are to be nothing but good, but to have to labour to achieve this-we despair. The angels are not going to come to purify and heal our heart. There exist such things as instructions and advice from angels, but everything must be done by oneself. All means are provided; that is, tools and surgeon's instruments. Take them and cut yourself wherever necessary without feeling any pity for yourself. No one else can do this for you. God Himself does not enter the sanctuary of the soul forcefully; instead, He requests to enter gently. I shall not ask whether you are arranging for your own purification, or whether you will turn this over to others.
You still have not undertaken this in the proper manner. When you do begin, I predict that not once will it cross your mind to think, "If only the angels would come and purify everything!" Although the angels will not undertake this for you, they will be right there with you. The act of cleansing must be conducted by one's own self, without any self-pity. The motivator of this act within us is that efficacious, living zeal about which I wrote last time. It is both chopper and knife, which always works extremely well when it is sharpened by grace and guided by its suggestions. It is ruthless when it establishes itself in the heart; it cuts, ignoring the cries of its victim. It is for this reason that the work goes successfully, and soon achieves its purpose; for the cutting is not the only thing.
Once everything has been cut off, then zeal is present, but does not function as a knife. It acts as a guard, and turns all its fierceness on the enemies of salvation, on those annoyances from which no one is free and the shamelessness from which no one is ever left in peace. You see yourself that I began this discussion in order to stimulate your desire to determine more precisely whether you have this kind of zeal. Without it, your spiritual activity will get nowhere. Indeed, when it is not there, your spirit is asleep; and when it is asleep, there is no use in discussing the spiritual.
Bishop Theophan the Recluse: The Spiritual Life And how to be attuned to it pp 106-108