We continued reading the 17th Homily of St. Isaac the Syrian which focuses on establishing a "Rule" of life for beginners in light of Hesychasm and Philokalic Spirituality as a whole. Isaac shows how every aspect of our life must be transformed by the grace of God. With a holy genius, he reveals the healing of soul that must take place. Every interaction with others, every emotion, can be a means of seduction and so must be considered with radical honesty. We must possess a willingness to reflect upon things such as laughter, the familiar and lingering gaze upon another, and encounters with the opposite sex from the perspective of their impact upon the spiritual life and the vulnerability that arises out of our sin. This is never a solitary pursuit. A solidarity exists between each of us and thus a responsibility for one another's salvation.
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?
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."
St. John in the final section of this step begins to describe the struggle for stillness. First, St. John details those things that threaten to destroy or prevent one from obtaining an inner state of peace. He identifies in particular the five demons that attack the solitary (despondence, vainglory, pride, dejection and anger) and the three that assail those living in community (gluttony, lust, and avarice). Second, St. John identifies the essential virtues of the hesychast (unceasing prayer, discretion, faith, fear of God, patience, prudence and a discerning spirit). He concludes by exhorting his readers to use every means to protect and strengthen the gift.
Stillness may be equated to peace of soul; the absence of spiritual warfare and the presence of calm. We beginners in the spiritual life cannot imagine what it would be like to be totally unaffected by the disquietude of the world; it is beyond our ability to comprehend never being tempted to speak in haste and never experiencing the movements of anger in our hearts. The beginner must be content with experiencing moments of this peace. He must strive to win this peace, by overcoming all the passions which seek to overthrow it.
It is only when we begin to center our thoughts on the spiritual world within by pushing far from us the noise of the external world that we notice how little peace is found there. The first notice of this peacelessness is often enough to drive many back to the diversions of the world. For some, the existential pain of their passionate soul is too great to bear and they choose to run away rather than stay and face it. For those who choose to stay, the experience of the true state of their souls is a necessary lesson. We first learn the presence of our soul by its pain rather than its peace. As we continue in our spiritual lives, it is this pain which will always direct us back to the concerns of the soul when we begin to stray.
As we set a priority on peace, we will begin to notice more and more the things in our lives that rob us of peace. We will begin to find the noise of this world to be a hindrance rather than a help. We will notice how much of our time is spent following distractions. We will begin to change our lifestyle on the basis of what produces peace in our souls. We will inevitably be led to a love of quiet and solitude.
However, an important thing to note is that this is a gradual process. St. John is very quick to point out the dangers of embracing too much "stillness" before we are spiritually ready: "The man who is foul-tempered and conceited, hypocritical and a nurse of grievances, ought never to enter the life of solitude, for fear that he should gain nothing but the loss of his sanity."
Above all, then, we must remember that the path to internal peace is not an easy one. Therefore, we must set ourselves for a long struggle. We will not achieve the state of constant peace in a day. Perhaps it is enough for us today not to have allowed anger to enter our soul; perhaps it is enough for us to have refrained from that idle word which stirs up passion; perhaps it is enough for us to have refrained from viewing those things which would have aroused our sexual passions. Each day we add virtue to virtue. Each day we embrace the struggle. Each day we repent of our failures. Each day we continue the struggle. In this way, although we may never be completely successful, we will never stop trying. And God who grants the prize, will consider our struggles to be victory and will grant us His peace for eternity.