St. Isaac begins homily three by making an argument that the passions are not natural to the soul. The soul by nature is pure and virtuous. Its contranatural state is to be moved by the passions that arise from the sense and appetites of the body. It is then in a state of illness. There is a distinction, I believe, that Isaac is making between desire and the passions. Desire for God is not the same as being passionate as is so often described in popular conversation. We wrong attribute and project onto the soul things that are not proper to it in its natural state.
A rather spirit discussion arose about seeking a life of dispassion in the world. Is desert living and the struggle appropriate and possible for those living in the world? What discipline is needed to live distinctively as Christians in the world?
In a magnificent closing to Homily Two and beginning to Homily Three, St. Isaac in a short few paragraphs lays out for us the types of passions and their nature and how a soul determines growth in the spiritual life. Measure your way of life by what arises in your thoughts. It is only with toil that the soul enters understanding of the wisdom of God and if she becomes still to the world and the cares of life; for then she can come to know her nature and what treasures she has hidden within herself. She will be lifted up twoard God and filled with the wonder of God; knowing the living water of the spirit that bubbles up within the soul. As the senses become more confined, the soul becomes more open to the contemplation of God.
The impact of sloth on the soul is often neglected and its significance minimized. St. Isaac the Syrian warns that without harsh tribulations of the flesh it is difficult for the untrained youth to be held under the yoke of sanctification. We must be willing to take upon ourselves the cross of the pursuit of virtue before sharing in its glory. Whenever the soul becomes heedless of the labors of virtue, he is inevitably drawn to what is opposed to them and thus becomes deprived of God's help and so subject to alien spirits. Every man who before training in the afflications of the cross completely and pursues the sweetness and glory of the cross out of sloth and for its own sweetness, has wrath come upon him. He lacks the proper wedding garment - the healing of the infirmity of his thoughts by patient endurance of the labor that belongs to the shame of the cross. A man whose mind is polluted with the passions of dishonor and rushes to imagine with his mind and ascend to the divine vision, is put to silence by divine punishment. "And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"
Theoria is rooted in virtue and becomes the receptacle and house of the knowledge of God. It is in the body that we must pursue virtue and so we must engage in the rigors of asceticism. We are not angels but rather fallen human beings who must purify the eye of the heart for the perception of the divine mysteries.
St. Isaac then begins to clarify the understanding of the word world. The world is collective noun applied to all the passions. Great care must be given in separating oneself from the world and with humility we must understand that depeneding on our state we may not perceive all the passions that hold us in their grip.
Conferences of St. John Cassian - Conference Eleven on Perfection Part II and Conference Twelve Intro.
Cassian and Germanus came to the end of their conference with Abba Chaeremon on Perfection discussing the various ranks of perfection that depend on an individual's virtue, will and ardor. We are challenged by God to go from the heights to sill higher places, driven by love. The greatest perfection is to share in the sonship of Christ; to be motivated by love in all things. The only fear we are to have is the fear that is a part of the nature and disposition of love itself - a fear of not doing the will of God or of losing a life a virtue through negligence. We must be preoccupied with a concerned devotion not only in every action but also in every word, lest our ardor become to the slightest extent lukewarm.
As we remarked in the very beginning of our study, the Ladder of Divine Ascent is a way to union with God. This is the goal of the spiritual life: direct, unhindered and undistracted communion with the Holy Trinity. Everything that St. John has outlined, the negative and the positive, has been presented with this goal in mind: to prepare ourselves to know God and, in knowing God, to experience Eternal Life. What is the highest pinnacle of the knowledge of God? When is our labor no longer preparation for, but actual enjoyment of the presence of God? St. John answers: "when we love." He writes: "Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul." In another paragraph he explains: "Not even a mother clings to her nursing child as a son of love clings to the Lord at all times." In still another place, he writes: "Love grants prophecy, miracles. It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity." It is truly significant that St. John isolates love as the highest expression of spirituality. For those of us who have grown up in the West, we have tended to associate great spiritual progress with either intellectual achievement or social action. Neither of these is antithetical to the spiritual life, but neither represents its highest attainment either. The person who truly knows God is love even as God is love.
This too is an important consideration. We all from time to time love. Love is something we do and something we give. At best, love is an "attribute" which is part of our inner selves. In this respect, for us, love is most often "premeditated." We think and plan to love. This is the beginning of the spiritual life. Those fully deified do not "love" as an expression of forethought or will, but they themselves have become love. Here is where true union with God takes place. To know the heart of God is to know love. "Love" is not an attribute of God, which takes its place among the other "attributes" of God. Love is God and God is love. Everything He does, even His punishment and wrath against sin, is an expression of His love.
To love is to be obsessed by and with the thing or person which is loved. The deified ones are completely overtaken by desire for God Himself. St. John explains: "Someone truly in love keeps before his mind's eye the face of the beloved and embraces it there tenderly. Even during sleep the longing continues unappeased and he murmurs to his beloved."
This kind of consuming and exhilarating love for God is a gift, a grace, which comes from Him. This is the mystical side of the spiritual life. We can prepare ourselves to receive God's love; this is the ascetical side. But true love comes from God and draws us back to God. Having ascended the Ladder through the practice of the virtues, at its pinnacle, we encounter the Eternal Mystery, we are drawn into that Light which is also Darkness and that Darkness which is also Light and we learn the meaning of the parable: "We love because He first loved us." We encounter Someone bigger, more powerful and more real than all of our feeble attempts to understand Him. We find the End of our search, and in experiencing Him, realize the End to be simply the Beginning.
For our prayer to lead to union with God, it is always necessary for it to be offered in a spirit of contrition. St. John notes: "Even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins." If we ever appear in God's presence and think that we belong there, if we ever lose sight of the priority of grace and our need for it at all times, then we have lost prayer. It is for certain that we are not talking to God but only to ourselves or worse yet to Satan who has the capacity of transforming himself into an angel of light. Contrition is the key to being delivered from spiritual delusion. Those who pray in a spirit of repentance are not easily fooled by Satan and his demonic hosts.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we must understand that prayer is not something gained simply from the teaching of others. St. John writes: "You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so. For that, you require your own natural power of sight. In the same way, you cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own special teacher in God. He grants the prayer of him who prays. And He blesses the years of the just."
In Step 29, St. John shows us the heights of spirituality - - the exalted state of dispassion. And when we listen to his descriptions, we have to admit that they are pretty amazing. It is hard for beginners in the spiritual life to imagine being cleansed of all corruption; it is equally as difficult to imagine being beyond all temptation. It is truly hard to comprehend being master of one's senses. We may consider it a "good day" if we have not given in to our senses; if we have restrained them. It is a spiritually successful day if we have held our tongues when provoked by the misbehavior of others. Our whole lives are spent dealing with our passions and trying to restrain them. But what St. John is describing is quite different. He is talking about a spiritual state where the passions no longer exist!
Why does he lay this out before us? For at least two reasons: a) to keep us from spiritual pride and b) to motivate us to spiritual labor. It is easy for us to become complacent in our spiritual life, to be satisfied with what we have achieved and to lose the impetus to pursue more. This, of course, is a Satanic ploy, for the reality is that once we have stopped pursuing God we begin to lose what we have already gained. If we are not going forward in our spiritual lives, we can be certain that we are going backwards. It is equally easy for us to falsely assume that we are at the heights of our spiritual endeavor when we are yet at its beginning.
In this chapter, it is as if St. John is standing before us and proclaiming: "There is more! There is more! Listen to his words: "O my brothers, we should run to enter the bridal chamber of this palace, and if some burden of past habits or the passage of time should impede us, what a disaster for us!" In another place he says: "Brothers, let us commit ourselves to this, for our names are on the lists of the devout. There must be no talk of `a lapse', `there is no time,' or `a burden.' To everyone who has received the Lord in baptism, `He has given the power to become children of God.'"
If we honestly observe ourselves, we will notice a sinful tendency to be satisfied with something less than dispassion. We grow weary of the struggle and we long to "be there" already. In our laziness we then lower the goal. We reduce holiness to a set of external rules; to a repeatable pattern of external behaviors. Once we have lowered the goal, we then don't have to struggle as much. Once we have equated holiness with "external correctness" we can then feel good about ourselves. We can "be holy" and "feel good about ourselves" at the same time. We begin to say to ourselves, "I have not committed any major sins; nor do I place myself in situations of temptation"; "I am disciplined in my spiritual life - I have not broken my fast - I have kept the rule of prayer." Soon we begin to see ourselves as authentic spiritual guides for others. We begin to compare ourselves with others and can even fancy ourselves as reliable judges of their holiness. And so without being aware of it, we have fallen into what is called prelest, or spiritual delusion.
St. John's words in this chapter are a wake-up call. They remind us of how far we are from spiritual perfection. They humble us. They motivate us. They set the goal before us. The goal is high: dispassion leading to illumination. The height of the goal reaffirms the necessity of struggle. Nothing in this life comes easily. The more important it is, the more work it requires. Thus, in our spiritual lives, when we are tempted to despair, to quit, to accept second best, to abandon the struggle, we must remind ourselves of just how wonderful the prize is. St. John says: "Think of dispassion as a kind of celestial palace, a palace of the king of heaven." This is where we must want to dwell. A small hut may be easier to attain, but it is not where those zealous for God and wish to be near him want to live. They have their eyes set on something more. "Blessed dispassion raises the poor mind from the earth to heaven, raises the beggar from the dunghill of passion. And love, all praise to it, makes him sit with princes, that is with holy angels, and with the princes of God's people."