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."
1-2 Dispassion defined.
Stars adorn the skies and dispassion has the virtues to make it beautiful. By dispassion I mean a heaven of the mind within the heart, which regards the artifice of demons as a contemptible joke. A man is truly dispassionate - and is known to be such - when he has cleansed his flesh of all corruption; when he has lifted his mind above everything that is created, and has made it master of all the senses; when he keeps his soul continually in the presence of the Lord and reaches out beyond the borderline of strength to Him. And there are some who would claim that dispassion is resurrection of the soul prior to that of the body, while others would insist that it is perfect knowledge of God, a knowledge second only to that of the angels.
3 The effects it has upon a person.
Dispassion is an uncompleted perfection of the perfect. I have been told this by one who has tasted it. Its effect is to sanctify the mind and to detach it from material things, and it does so in such a way that, after entering this heavenly harbor, a man, for the most of his earthly life, is enraptured, like someone already in heaven, and he is lifted up to the contemplation of God.
4-5 St. John then describes the levels and kinds of dispassion and the experience of one who is immersed in virtue and the grace of God.
One man is dispassionate, another is more dispassionate than the dispassionate. The one will loathe evil while the other will have the blessing of an inexhaustible store of virtues. Purity is also said to be dispassion, and this is right, for it is a foretaste of the general resurrection and of the incorruption of the corruptible.
David, the most glorious of prophets, says to the Lord: "Spare me so that I may recover my strength"; but the athlete of God cries: "Spare me from the waves of Your grace."
A dispassionate soul is immersed in virtues as a passionate being is in pleasure.
6 St. John then compares the height of passion to the height of dispassion.
If complete enslavement to passion is indicated by the fact that one quickly submits to whatever the demons have sown in us, I take it then that a mark of holy dispassion is to be able to say unambiguously: "I did not recognize the evil one as he slipped away from me" (Ps. 100:4), nor did I know the time of his coming, the reasons for it, nor how he went. I am completely unaware of such matters because I am and will ever be wholly united with God.
7 The dispassionate man, St. John tells us, has God for his teacher and companion and longs for the light and love He alone can offer.
The man deemed worthy to be of this sort during his lifetime has God always within him, to guide him in all he has to say or do or think. The will of the Lord becomes for him a sort of inner voice through illumination. All human teaching is beneath him. "`When shall I come to appear before the face of God?'" he says (Ps. 41:3). "I can no longer endure the force of love. I long for the undying beauty that You gave me before this clay."
8-9 Simply put, dispassion is union with God and the fullness of virtue.
What more has to be said? The dispassionate man no longer lives himself, but it is Christ Who lives in him (cf. Gal. 2:20).
Just as a royal crown is not made up of one stone, so dispassion is incomplete if we neglect even one of the most ordinary virtues.
10-12 In these final paragraphs, St. John exhorts us to seek the goal and to desire the fullness of what God longs to give us.
Think of dispassion as a kind of celestial palace, a palace of the King of heaven. . . . 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!
Friends, let us break through this wall of separation (cf. Eph. 2:14), this wall that in our disobedience we built to our own harm. Let us look there for the forgiveness of our sins, since there is no one in hell who can pardon us. 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" (John 1:12).
Blessed dispassion raises the poor mind from 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 (cf. Ps. 112:7-8).