Last night we considered the proper measure of discretion needed in ascetical pursuits; dedicating your soul to the work of prayer; pursuing the life of solitude with those who share your desire; the importance of reading in stirring the heart to contemplation; the necessity of almsgiving and the willingness to live with scarcity. We discussed implications of Isaac's for those who live in the world and pursue purity of heart.
According to St. John, as we pursue the heavenly goal we need to be aware of the great danger of becoming desensitized to the importance of spiritual realities. What he describes should be familiar to all. When we are first awakened to the spiritual life and introduced to its depths, we are awestruck and experience a godly fear. Yet, familiarity often breeds contempt or at least invites one to have a casual attitude.
Insensitivity develops when we allow a division to exist between our words and our actions. It is brought on by a lengthy illness which prevents a person from engaging in spiritual disciplines, carelessness and prolonged negligence. In many ways it is hypocrisy at its worst and most pathetic. We speak to others about certain spiritual practices and their importance and yet rarely embrace themselves for ourselves. We remain unmoved and untouched by our own words and exhortations. Even the reality of death and the judgement of God provoke no response.
To understand such a vice and overcome it, John tells us, we must deliberately take hold of it and scourge it with unceasing prayer and the fear of God. The source of this vice is not the same for all, and so greater effort is required from us to expose its causes and defeat them
There is a saying in the book of Proverbs which introduces the theme of Step 19 very well: "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep - - so shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man." (Interestingly, this saying is repeated twice: Proverbs 6:10,11 and Proverbs 24:33,34). In step 19, St. John reminds us that too much sleep, like too much of anything, can be spiritually dangerous. Of course, we all need to sleep. Just as we need to eat, so we need to sleep in order to live. But, although sleep is natural and needful, like desire it has many sources.
How can we tell the difference? St. John does not spend a great deal of time in explaining the answer. He simply reminds us: it is too much sleep when it keeps us from fulfilling our rule of prayer. When we choose to sleep rather than to pray - we have entered into the spiritual danger zone.
Many of the fathers have pointed out that Satan can oppress and make us feel more tired than we are in order to keep us from praying. This often happens at night when it is time to say your prayers before going to bed. All of a sudden, you are hit with a tremendous sense of fatigue so that you can barely make it to your bed without falling asleep. Sometimes, undoubtedly, this is natural, but more often than not it comes from the evil one. It is a trick to get us to go to bed without prayer. For if we go to bed without prayer, we leave open our minds and imaginations for demonic assault all night. When we are sleeping, we cannot be vigilant over our thoughts. Therefore, our prayer before sleep is of the greatest importance.
In this short step, John describes sleep and its sources, the habit of oversleeping, the tactics of demons especially at the time of prayer, and finally how these demons may be overcome.