Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Desire Purified: Cassian on Grace and Married Love

According to St. John Cassian, those who are married must embrace the spiritual disciplines that foster chastity; for many are not lovers of marriage but slaves of lust.  Marriage in and of itself is not a cure of the passions and spouses who neglect the spiritual life may endlessly continue in the struggle against themselves for purity of heart.  Within them may remain the conflict between sexual habit and continence of heart.  In many ways sexuality is a perfect mirror of the human self and a lens through which we see the contortions and distortions of human motivation.  The desire for chastity must precede the bond of marriage and continue to grow by the grace of God into the perfection of love and purity.  Indeed, the desire for chastity and its pursuit should only lead spouses to embrace married love and each other with still greater affection. Through it one comes to recognize and experience one's spouse as helpmate.  Couples must strive then not to see the sacrament of matrimony as given to them as making the passions licit and so a means of defrauding themselves of the salvation offered them in Christ.  The law commands that marriage be pursued as a great good.  Yet, grace encourages us to an everlasting and incorrupt purity and chastity in every state of life.  

Whoever, then, mounts to this summit of gospel perfection is, by reason of his great virtuousness, raised far above the whole of the law. Despising everything that Moses commanded as insignificant, he knows that he is solely under the grace of the Savior, by whose help he realizes that he has arrived at this most sublime condition. Sin, then, has no dominion over him, `because the love of God that has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us,' excludes every disposition of any other kind. Nor can he desire forbidden things or disdain things that are commanded, since all his concentration and all his longing are constantly fixed upon the divine love, and to such a degree does he not take delight in base things that he does not even make use of those things that have been conceded him.  In the law, however, in which the rights of spouses are observed, it is impossible for the stings of carnal desire not to flourish, even though a roving lasciviousness is restrained and given over to only one woman. It is difficult for the fire, to which fuel is purposely added, to stay within defined limits such that it does not break free and set ablaze whatever it touches. Even if there is always something to block it, so that it is not permitted to flare up outside, it still burns while restrained, because the will itself is guilty and its familiarity with sexual intercourse quickly carries it away to the excesses of adultery. But those whom the grace of the Savior has inflamed with a holy love of incorruption burn up all the thorns of carnal desires with the fire of the Lord's love, such that a dying ember of vice does not diminish the coolness of their integrity.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Praying at night

As with fasting, praying at night humbles the mind and body so as to make the heart more still and attentive to God.  For this reason, vigils are a special blessing to the ascetic not to be neglected.

The best, most graceful time for a monk's spiritual exercises is at night.  As the holy Fathers said: "It is during nighttime that the monk must best be engaged in his work."  Blessed Philotheus of Sinai teaches that the mind is purified best at night.  And St. Isaac the Syrian says: "Consider every prayer which we offer up in the night to be more important than all our daily actions.  For the sweet consolation which the one who fasts receives during the day comes out of the light received during the monk's nocturnal exercises."

Nil Sorsky

Do we understand the worth of our souls?

If we understood the value of our souls and could see the preciousness of the gifts that God has given us we would labor to deepen and preserve them.  No amount of ascetic labor would, so long as suited to our station in life, seem excessive or beyond our strength.  Sorsky exhorts us not to make asceticism and the spiritual disciplines something of the past and not necessary for ourselves.  We have received the same call to holiness.  The only thing that makes it impossible is the lack of a serious desire to repent. 

We can at least be conscious of the folly that engrosses us, of how we throw away our talents in the pursuit of material things as we give ourselves over to cares and anxieties that are harmful for our souls.  And we regard all such pursuit as good and praiseworthy!  But woe to us!  We do not understand the worth of our souls.  We do not understand that we have not been called to live such an evil life, as St. Isaac says.  Woe to us if we think our life in this world - its sufferings, its joys, its rest - have importance for us!  Woe to us if by the life of our soul, so weighted down by laziness, worldly curiosity, and lack of concern, we should be convinced that the style of life that was proper to that lived by the ancient saints is no longer necessary for us nor is it possible for us to live such ascetical exploits.  No, this cannot be so, in no way!  Such practices are not possible only for those who are immersed by self-indulging passions because of their own free will who do not seriously desire to repent, namely, to truly come under the guidance of the divine Holy Spirit, but who are given over to useless, worldly cares.

Nil Sorsky 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Spiritual adultery

Sorsky encourages the pray-er to hold fast to silence and when it has been achieved in the mind and heart not to seek that which is of lesser value.  We must come to seek out the silence of prayer as the most sublime gift we could receive and as that which fills us with the greatest joy.  Let go of the trivial matters of the world and the trivial nature of your thoughts and meet God who is peace and tranquility.

. . . to leave God within you in order to seek him from outside is like leaving him from the heights to call on him by stooping lower.  But when you allow any distraction to disturb the mind, such draws the mind away from silence.  For silence is had only in peace and tranquility, since God is peace and is beyond all  agitation and noise.  

For the minds of those who idly turn away from the remembrance of God and busy themselves with trivial matters commit spiritual adultery.  St. Isaac writes sublimely on such matters and insists on this: "When such person possess such unspeakable joy, it cuts away any lip-prayer.  Then the mouth and tongue become silenced.  Also the heart is silenced, which stands as a guard over fantasies along with the mind which directs the feeling senses and controls the thoughts that are like swift and bold flying birds."

Nil Sorsky

Pushing the Mind into the Heart

. . . even though there are many good works, their value is only a partial good.  The prayer of the heart is the source of all good and is likened to gardens that are refreshed by water, so does this prayer of the heart refresh the soul . . . 

Blessed is the person who seriously meditates on the Writings of all the Spirit-filled Fathers and follows their teachings and examples.  Such a person is completely taken up with this prayer and is able to overcome always every kind of thought, not only an evil one, but also one that seemingly is a good one.  And in this manner, he attains perfect silence even in his thoughts, for the prayer is the peak and crown of all ascetical practices.  For Symeon the New Theologian teach that true silence and tranquility (hesychia) is to seek the Lord in the heart, that is, to push the mind into the heart consciously and to pray and be concerned only with this.

Nil Sorsky

Monday, May 5, 2014

Whatever a man loves, he desires at all costs

Whatever a man loves, he desires at all costs to be near to continuously and uninterruptedly, and he turns himself away from everything that hinders him from being in contact and dwelling with the object of his love. It is clear therefore that he who loves God also desires always to be with him and to converse with him. This comes to pass in us through pure prayer. Accordingly, let us apply ourselves to prayer with all our power; for it enables us to become akin to God. Such a man was he who said: “O God, my God, I cry to Thee at dawn; my soul has thirsted for Thee” (Psalm 63:1, LXX). For the man who cries to God at dawn has withdrawn his intellect from every vice and clearly is wounded by divine love.

St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic
II, A Century of Spiritual Texts, sec. 94”

Friday, May 2, 2014

More Joy in Heaven

Our Lord tells us there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine others who have no need of repentance.  It may seem strange to us to imagine the existence of such a joy, especially in regard to ourselves.  Perhaps very few of us allow ourselves to weep true tears of repentance, to experience true sorrow for our sins, and so never come to know that heavenly joy.  Tears that emerge from eyes that gaze upon Christ are the prelude to the loving embrace of the Heavenly Bridegroom.  

If there is one thing the devil would want to prevent it is this movement from sorrow to joy, from repentance to intimacy.  He would keep us in the despair of our own wretchedness, despondent through lack of hope in forgiveness or convince us that our sins are of no account - such that our repentance produces no tears, internal or external.  In both cases, we see only the light of salvation fade and the heart grow cold.  
Let us not then make ourselves unworthy of entrance into the bride-chamber: for as long as we are in this world, even if we commit countless sins it is possible to wash them all away by manifesting repentance for our offenses: but when once we have departed to the other world, even if we display the most earnest repentance it will be of no avail, not even if we gnash our teeth, beat our breasts, and utter innumerable calls for succor, no one with the tip of his finger will apply a drop to our burning bodies, but we shall only hear those words which the rich man heard in the parable ‘Between us and you a great gulf has been fixed.’ [Luke xvi. 26]
Let us then, I beseech you, recover our senses here and let us recognize our Master as He ought to be recognized. For only when we are in Hades should we abandon the hope derived from repentance: for there only is this remedy weak and unprofitable: but while we are here even if it is applied in old age itself it exhibits much strength. Wherefore also the devil sets everything in motion in order to root in us the reasoning which comes of despair: for he knows that if we repent even a little we shall not do this without some reward. But just as he who gives a cup of cold water has his recompense reserved for him, so also the man who has repented of the evils which he has done, even if he cannot exhibit the repentance which his offenses deserve, will have a commensurate reward. For not a single item of good, however small it may be, will be overlooked by the righteous judge. For if He makes such an exact scrutiny of our sins, as to require punishment for both our words and thoughts, much more will our good deeds, whether they be great or small, be reckoned to our credit at that day.
Wherefore, even if thou art not able to return again to the most exact state of discipline, yet if thou withdraw thyself in a slight degree at least from thy present disorder and excess, even this will not be impossible: only set thyself to the task at once, and open the entrance into the place of contest; but as long as thou tarriest outside this naturally seems difficult and impracticable to thee. [Matt. xxv. 34; 249 Luke xvi. 26]. For before making the trial even if things are easy and manageable they are wont to present an appearance of much difficulty to us: but when we are actually engaged in the trial, and making the venture the greater part of our distress is removed, and confidence taking the place of tremor and despair lessens the fear and increases the facility of operation, and makes our good hopes stronger.
For this reason also the wicked one dragged Judas out of this world lest he should make a fair beginning, and so return by means of repentance to the point from which he fell. For although it may seem a strange thing to say, I will not admit even that sin to be too great for the succor which is brought to us from repentance. Wherefore I pray and beseech you to banish all this Satanic mode of thinking from your soul, and to return to this state of salvation.
+ St. John Chrysostom, An Exhortation to Theodore After His Fall, Letter 1