We continued reading and discussing the 12th letter of St. Theophan the Recluse to the young Anastasia. He works very hard to show her that the illness that we struggle with is universal but it is also something that is willfully contracted. We all act in an unnatural way when we fail to subordinate the intellectual and carnal aspects of our being to the spiritual. Theophan makes it clear to Anastasia that there is nothing inherently sinful or evil about the intellectual or carnal but sin comes into play when they take supremacy over life in the Spirit and so make the self and our desire idols. We become less than human.
When we give ourselves over to the thoughts and desires associated with these aspects of ourselves we are easily drawn into sin and it can quickly drag us down like a whirlpool. Often it is very difficult to overcome such sin when it becomes habitual, or becomes a passion. In fact Theophan tells the young woman that sometimes we can remain fixed in the passion permanently.
However, Theophan assures Anastasia that even the most dedicated individual struggles with irrepressible thoughts. One should not become disheartened or despondent in the struggle. Anastasia has already made the first step in acknowledging the illness and the need for healing. What is most important now is that she guards her virtue and that she remains ever vigilant in subordinating all things to the spiritual life.
Referenced in the recording, the text offered to the group from Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky by way of chat during the group is copied below:
Generally speaking, there is the western Christian definition, for example CCC 1773, where “passion” is a morally neutral concept. In reading St Theophan we need to remember his background wherein there is Eastern Christian definition, for example COP 795, where “passion” is always a vice, one of the capital sins - something that is cancerous and death bearing to the spiritual life. St John Climacus was of the opinion that each of the passions was originally something that God made as good and our sin perverted its purpose. Anger was given that we may hate the evil one and sin, but we use it to hate one another. St. John of the Ladder was of the opinion that only akedia had no good origin with God.
COP is Christ Our Pascha the official catechism of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church.
In the East, all sin is missing the mark, and so death-bearing, we do not distinguish between mortal and venial sins.
The link to the English version of COP is available for reading online on the St Josaphat Eparchy's web site. You can also purchase it there.
In the East we also distinguish stages from getting from a thought to a passion. Search the internet for “The Struggle With Passions”, by I.M. Kontzevich. COP has a simplified version in paragraphs 790 and following. These stages of temptation are provocation, conjunction, joining, struggle, habit and finally passion. Technically, sin is born somewhere between conjunction and joining.
Here is a short summary of Kontzevich's description: In “The Struggle With Passions”, by I.M. Kontzevich,Also COP, 790, we read:
1. PROVOCATION (SUGGESTION) прилог, приложитиCOP, 791By impression, memory or imagination a thought, if it is not invited consciously and voluntarily, and if a person is not negligent about it, presents itself to us. This is the touchstone for testing our will, to see whether it will be inclined towards virtue or vice. It is in this choice that the free will manifests itself.
2. CONJUNCTION (sochetanie-поєднання) and 3. JOINING (slozhenie-складання) In COP, 792…2 and 3 are called (internal conversation)In short, the thought is conjoined to the feeling and they in turn are joined to the will.The thought produces a feeling. This determines whether the thought stays or leaves. If our feelings do not “hate” the thought but “like” the thought, the thought then enters into our consciousness. We begin paying attention to it. We begin delighting in it. AT THIS POINT there is a conjunction-поєднання between the thought and me. But sin does not yet exist. In order to cut off the sequence of notions, to remove it from my consciousness, and to terminate the feeling of delight, I need to distract my attention. I must actively and firmly resolve to rebut the images of sin assailing me and not return to them again. But, if I become inclined to act upon what the thought tells me and to get the satisfaction of partaking of it, then the equilibrium of my spiritual life is DESTROYED. My willpower is now cooperating with the thought. This is called: JOINING-складання. “This state is already "approaching the act of sin and is akin to it" (St. Ephraim the Syrian). There comes the willful resolve to attain the realization of the object of the passionate thought by all means available to man. In principle, the decision has already been made to satisfy the passion. Sin has already been committed in intention. It now remains to satisfy the sinful desire, turning it into a concrete act.”
4. STRUGGLE Christ our Pascha: 793: “A thought that has penetrated the heart through conversation is difficult to dismiss. A person cannot be rid of it without struggle and effort. The Word of God and prayer assure victory in this battle” Kontzevich: “Sometimes, however, before man's final decision to proceed to this last moment, or even after such a decision, he experiences a struggle between the sinful desire and the opposite inclination of his nature”.
5. HABIT- звичка, (Assent-згода, зволення)Christ our Pascha: 794: “acceptance of an evil thought, which is equivalent to defeat in battle. By making an evil thought one’s own and deciding to make it a reality, a person has already sinned, even if the evil intention is not [sic: be] acted upon.”Kontzevich: there is still “an unstable vacillation of the will between opposing inclinations” and “a sinful inclination has not yet deeply penetrated man's nature and become a constant feature of his character, a familiar element of his disposition, when his mind is constantly preoccupied with the object of the passionate urge, when the passion itself has not yet been completely formed.”
6. CAPTIVITY (Passion-пристрасть) Christ our Pascha: 795: “The final stage is the actual passion. This is a state of captivity that results from sinful activity. A person given over to passion experiences a constant inclination towards evil. The inclination can become so powerful that a person loses the strength to resist, becomes addicted to evil, and a slave to passion.”Kontzevich: “It is no longer the will that rules over sinful inclinations, but the latter rule over the will, forcibly and wholly enticing the soul, compelling its entire rational and active energy to concentrate on the object of passion. This state is called captivity (plenenie-полон). This is the moment of the complete development of a passion, of the fully established state of the soul, which now manifests all of its energy to the utmost.”
Isaac puts forward a vision of renunciation rarely conceived of by the Christian - involving the setting aside of all things internal and external that draw us away from God or leave us with a false view of the self. Everything pales in comparison to seeking within the soul the mystery of blessedness which is of the future age.
What does it mean to pray "lead us not into temptation"; how can we treasure the life of the soul above all things and avoid laxity? We must look to the zeal of the Saints, the living icons of faith and learn from them not to fear affliction.
We picked up on page 133 of the text where St. Isaac begins to describe Purity of Heart. Through guarding the mind and the senses, one can achieve a level of purity, but it is often fleeting because of our tendency to return to our sins through repeated exposure to that which is impure in the world. Lasting Purity of Heart is achieved only through affliction; since deep and prolonged affliction leads us to let go of our attachment to the world and ourselves and cling to God alone who is our life.
In the struggle for purity, fear precedes love. Obedience to God and the practice of virtue is its beginning. Eventually the love of God incites us to desire the doing of good. Spiritual knowledge comes only after such virtue has been achieved.
St. Isaac continued to guide us to a clearer understanding of the Passions and in particular they are contrary to the nature of the soul that has been created for holiness and virtue. Lengthy discussion ensued about the place of asceticism in the lives of all Christian men and women. Regardless of our station in life we are to embrace the grace of our baptism and strive to overcome the Passions. A false clericalism exists that claims that those in the single or married state are not called to radical holiness. The best belongs to everyone not simply to a select few.
Conferences of St. John Cassian - Conference Twenty On the End of Repentance and on the Mark of Reparation Part I
We join Cassian and Germanus now as they visit with Abba Pinufius - well known to them for his holiness and humility. Because of these qualities, they seek him out in particular as they grapple not with understanding the need for repentance and reparation but rather with the desire to know the when end of repentance has been achieved and by what marks reparation and full healing from sin can be identified.
Living in the desert, having access to a holy elder, and being surrounded by those of great virtue is not a guarantee that one will grow in humility and patience. The true battle ground is within the heart and the fierce struggle that must take place is with one's own dispositions. The Christian must undergo a decisive change in the way they look at reality and the struggles of life. The pursuit of holiness and virtue must become the center of consciousness - the frame of reference; as well as an unceasing reliance upon the grace of God through prayer. The wisdom that must guide us in our reaction to the slights and insults of others must be the wisdom of the cross; the ego must as it were be crucified in love for God and neighbor. Our natural disposition so often is to defend and strike back rather than to receive with love the hatred of others in such a way that it can be transformed by the love of God.
Cassian's discussion with Abba Piamun about the various kinds of monks stands more as a backdrop to a greater reflection on the necessary virtues of the Christian life; virtues not requiring a retreat to the desert but rather a willingness to retreat into the heart and there do battle to free oneself from the grip of the ego. Tonight we were presented with a most beauty portrait of humility - the virtue that becomes like the oil used by wrestlers and which allows the rebukes, insults and detraction of others to slide off of us, never being able to take grip of our hearts and pull us down into indignation and anger towards others. Abba Piamun provides us with the stories of two exemplars of patience and humility that provoke the desire for imitation and help us to understand that the spiritual life is not about leisure or joy in this world. Trial and affliction shape and sharpen these virtues until they take on the quality God desires.