Friday, May 18, 2012

The Ascetic Heart

The Ascetic Heart: This piece written by an unnamed writer beautifully reflects upon what has been lost among Christians, especially in the West. The Spiritual life involves the whole self if it is a matter of true love. While we are often willing to busy ourselves with so many things in the world and to engage in physical exercise, we tend to fail to invest ourselves fully in the most important relationship of all and to do the very things necessary in order to offer ourselves to Christ with a pure and undivided heart. The writings of the Philokalia understand that ascesis expresses a love that tries to restore the darkened image of God in man to its original beauty through grace and personal effort.  The fathers heeded St. Paul's call to "train yourself to be godly.  For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim. 4:7-8). 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Desert Fathers and Searching the Depths of the Unconscious: Descending with the Mind into the Heart

In a number of previous posts, I have already mentioned, albeit in a cursory fashion, the importance of the Heart in Philokalic Spirituality.  Yet, one cannot emphasize enough the significance and centrality of its place in the writings of the desert fathers.  Therefore, having a clear notion of how they define the Heart and its place in the spiritual and ascetical life is imperative for anyone wishing to approach the study of the Philokalia.  

The Heart is not simply a physical organ but rather the very epicenter of one’s identity as a person, one’s capacity to know, love and choose.  St. Maximus explains this as follows: “The mind’s aim is to have knowledge of God.  The sensation’s aim is to desire and love God, and the volition’s aim is the will to do what God commands.”  For this reason, the Heart has often been called “The Lord’s Reception Room.”  

Yet, given the fact that it encompasses all of the above mentioned faculties through which we are receptive to and engage God and the things of the world, Anthony Coniaris reminds us that it can also be the reception room, the abode, of demons, sin and evil.  As one familiar with modern psychology, in particular psychoanalytic thought, I found Coniaris‘ comparison of the Heart to the Unconscious to be of great interest and perhaps a helpful means to understand this central concept of the fathers’ thought.  He writes:
“In the heart, or the unconscious, are buried all the things we ever did (now forgotten) as well as all the passions we have inherited.  Jesus spoke specifically to this truth when He said, ‘Out of the heart’, the unconscious (not the conscious mind), ‘proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, murders . . .things which defile a person’ (Mark 7:21-23).  Yet out of the same unconscious mind, buried in the heart, we have also inherited many good things as well, such as the voice of conscience, the knowledge of God, a sense of right and wrong, etc.” (58)
While it is beyond the scope of this present post and while the nuances and distinctions about the unconscious that modern psychoanalytic thought makes might be quite different, Coniaris’ observation and comparison is astute and the similarities between the Heart and the Unconscious are indeed numerous and worthy of exploration.  Indeed, the fathers could rightfully be called the first psychoanalysts, seeking through prayer, ascetical practice and the solitude of the desert to enter into the depths.  They understood and respected the mystery of the human person, the contradictions found within and the value of becoming more conscious of both the integrating and disintegrating factors that establish personal identity for good or ill.  This is captured well by noted philosopher, religious writer and co-translator of the Philokalia, Philip Sherrard:
“ The receptacle of grace, the ‘place of the presence of divine life, is where we encounter God and in union with God become integrated and transfigured beings.  The art of the spiritual life is therefore to become conscious of the ‘treasure hidden in the heart‘ - to become conscious of the real but un-apprehended presence of God in the heart; and this art is effectuated by inducing the intellect, freed from extraneous thoughts and images, to ‘descend’ into the heart and so become conscious of the divine presence hidden there.”  
Again, while perhaps the nuances of an analytic understanding and exploration of the unconscious and the purposes of such an exploration may differ greatly, both appreciate the mystery and complexity that is the human person.  St. Macarious describes it insightfully: 
“Within the heart there are unfathomable depths.  There are reception rooms and bedchambers in it, doors and porches, and many offices and passages.  In it is the workshop of righteousness and of wickedness.  In it is death; in it is life . . . The heart is Christ’s palace: there Christ the King comes to take rest, with angels and the spirit of the saints, and he dwells there, walking within it and places his Kingdom there.” (60)
While appreciating the mystery of the human person, it should be clear even from the one reference above that these masters of the inner life had a different end in view with the descent of the mind into the heart.  Their goal was not a psychological integration or to create an emotional narrative through which they might understand their thoughts and feelings.  These are certainly valuable and may take place in the course of one’s spiritual life, but it simply wasn’t in their purview.  Their end, in light of their faith, was not integration so much as transformation through of rediscovery of the grace of Baptism and the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.  To descend with the mind into the heart is, most importantly, to discover there the kingdom of God.  Through great ascetic effort and the struggle of prayer one seeks to reach a state which is free from all disturbance and there to encounter the God who dwells within.  This encounter is what transforms, illuminates and purifies.  The healing that is sought is that of the whole person by “tending to the inner flame of the Holy Spirit which burns before the image (icon) of God in the chapel of our heart.” (114)
All quotes taken from “A Beginners Introduction to the Philokalia” by Anthony Coniaris

Monday, May 14, 2012

On the Remembrance of Death

We must remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Daily meditation on these realities have long been held up by the Desert Fathers as essential for the spiritual life and as a means of avoiding sin; but most of all as way of heeding the words of our Lord who warns us that we know neither the day nor the hour. Life is a gift, but we must not take it or our salvation lightly. Here is a reflection of one well formed in the wisdom and tradition of the Holy Fathers:

"We should never lack the contemplation of death or other such meditations. All these contemplations create watchfulness in the soul and purity and cleanse the mind so that it may feel the contemplation better. This contemplation is a barrier for evil thoughts. When this spiritual contemplation is within us, we shut out evil thoughts . . . We should never at any time stop remembering death. The Holy Fathers said that they were not overcome by negligence in their cells, because they had the remembrance of death night and day. Negligence found no room in them. The Fathers kept thinking, 'If today or tomorrow is my last day, what should I do?' In this way, this remembrance kept their mind on the fear of God, and the fear of God gave light to their conscience regarding how to compel themselves.What will come more certainly than death? It is the most certain thing that every person will encounter. We ought to keep the remembrance of death alive within us constantly, so that through this most saving remembrance, we may avoid the soul's death . . . Violently compel yourselves, says the Lord in the gospel, for you do not know when the Bridegroom of your soul will visit you, and woe to him whom He finds indolent and neglectful of his salvation. The truth of God sounds forth like a might trumpet and says, 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!' 'For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 'Remember your end and you shall not sin unto the ages.' 'Riches do not remain, glory does not accompany one to the other world, for when death comes, all these things are obliterated.' Behold the truth, which mightily crushes the lie!When we visit our final dwelling, our grave, we shall see with our own eyes all the vanity of man, as did Abba Sisoes when he saw the tomb of Alexander the Great and cried out, 'Alas, alas, O death! The entire world was not big enough for you, Alexander. How then have you fit into two meters of earth now?'My child, be careful with this world which is like a theater. For poor and ignoble people on stage in the theater wear the clothes of kings, tycoons, etc. and appear to be different from what they really are and fool the audience. But when the show is over and they take off their masks, then their true faces are revealed." (Elder Ephraim - Counsels from the Holy Mountain)

Likewise, St. John Climacus dedicates the sixth step of his “Ladder of Divine Ascent” to the subject and has powerful things to say about it: 

“Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods so the thought of death is the most essential of all works . . . .The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it by the hour is surely a saint.”

Like Ephraim he offers many compelling reasons for this spiritual practice as well as a story of Hesychius the Horebite for our edification:

“Every word is preceded by thought. And the remembrance of death and sins precedes weeping and mourning.
Not every desire for death is good. Some, constantly sinning from force of habit, pray for death with humility. And some, who do not want to repent, invoke death out of despair. And some, out of self-esteem consider themselves dispassionate, and for a while have no fear of death. And some (if such can now be found), through the action of the Holy Spirit, ask for their departure.

Some inquire and wonder: “Why, when the remembrance of death is so beneficial to us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?” – not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation. For no one who foreknew his death would at once proceed to baptism or the monastic life; but everyone would spend all his days in iniquities, and only on the day of his death, would he approach baptism and repentance. From long habit, he would become confirmed in vice, and would remain utterly incorrigible.

And I cannot be silent about the story of Hesychius the Horebite. He passed his life in complete negligence, without paying the least attention to his soul. Then he became extremely ill, and for an hour he expired. And when he came to himself, he begged us all to leave him immediately. And he built up the door of his cell, and he stayed in it for twelve years without ever uttering a word to anyone, and without eating anything but bread and water. And, always remaining motionless, he was so rapt in spirit at what he had seen in his ecstasy, that he never changed this manner of life but was always as if out of his mind, and silently shed hot tears. But when he was about to die, we broke open the door and went in, and after many questions, this alone was all we heard from him: "Forgive me! No one who has acquired the remembrance of death will ever be able to sin." We were amazed to see that one who had before been so negligent was so suddenly transfigured by this blessed change and transformation. We reverently buried him in the cemetery near the fort, and after some days we looked for his holy relics, but did not find them. So by Hesychius's true and praiseworthy repentance, the Lord showed us that He accepts those who desire to amend, even after long negligence.”

The Fathers warns us of the need to repent of our preoccupation with the world.  As the psalmist says: “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”

The Holy Fathers on Illness and Perfection

Diverting a bit from my approach to the writings of the Philokalia, I wish to put forward a few thoughts about how we often think about illness in our lives and how the Holy Fathers offer us fresh insight into the mystery of evil, sin, illness and their place in our struggle for holiness. 

Often, when we are young, we do not think much about physical illness and the spiritual life.  Life passes quickly as we are fully engaged in our work, studies and ministry and many of us rarely struggle with ill health except for the occasional flu or cold.  But when illness does strike, in one form or another, suddenly our busy and “productive” lives can be disrupted and we are forced, as it were, to reconsider a great deal of things; not merely the meaning of health, that we have perhaps taken for granted, but the nature of our relationship with God, the depth of our faith or lack thereof, the meaning of suffering and how to engage it and not to become discourage even when we have been completely humbled by the burden of our physical and emotional vulnerabilities.  When such circumstances arise, we are often unprepared for the trial - never imagining or wanting to think about the possibility of such a cross - a cross the comes to most all of us at some point.  When illness plunges us into unfamiliar territory, even to the point of death, what place does it have within our struggle toward holiness?  How do we pray when prayer seems impossible and when it feels as though our heart has been turned to stone?  Where do we find our hope and with what faith must we enter the mystery of illness and suffering in order to know the healing touch of Christ, the Physician of our souls and bodies?  

I offer for your consideration today brief excerpts from “The Holy Fathers on Illness” compiled by Bishop Alexander Mileant; in particular those thoughts from the Fathers on “Illness and Work of Perfection”.  Their words offer some perspective on sickness and redemptive suffering as a means of glorifying God.  There is much to say certainly about the meaning and origins of illness well beyond the purview of a simple post, but the Fathers show us in word and deed that it can be and often is a privileged way of holiness.  Through thankfulness, endurance, and patience one can realize the highest form of ascetic practice and follow a spiritual path to intimacy with God.  At such moments, one may exhibit no extraordinary virtue other than to suffer illness and its poverty with patience and so have this as one’s path to salvation.  Thus, the Fathers’ words are full of hope and challenge:

“The desert ascetic Father, St. Abba Dorotheus, exhorts his disciples to "take the trouble to find out where you are: whether you have left your own town but remain just outside the gates, by the garbage dump, or whether you have gone ahead little or much, or whether you are half way on your journey, or whether you have gone two miles, then come back two miles, or perhaps even five miles, or whether you have journeyed as far as the Holy City and entered into Jerusalem itself, or whether you have remained outside and are unable to enter" (On Vigilance and Sobriety).

Illness helps us to see "where we are" on life's road: "sickness is a lesson from God and serves to help us in our progress if we give thanks to Him" (Sts. Barsanuphius and John, Philokalia).

No one may use illness as an excuse for resting from the labor of spiritual living. "Perhaps some might think that illness and bodily weakness hinder the work of perfection since the works and accomplishments of one's hands cannot continue. But it is not a hindrance" (St. Ambrose, Jacob and the Happy Life).  

In the life of Riassophore-monk John, latter-day disciple of St. Nilus of Sora, we see how bodily infirmity is not allowed to interrupt the struggle for salvation. Riassophore-monk John was a cripple; because of this he had been compelled to leave the Monastery of St. Cyril of New Lake. Feeling sorry for himself, he shortly afterwards was standing for an all-night vigil in the deep of winter. "Suddenly he saw an unknown Elder in schema come out of the altar to him and say: 'Well, apparently you do not wish to serve me. If so, return to St. Cyril.

"At these words, the Elder struck him with his right hand quite strongly on the shoulder. Noting that the Elder exactly resembled St. Nilus as he is depicted on the icon over his relics, John was filled with great joy, all his grief disappeared, and he firmly resolved to spend the rest of his life in the Saint's skete" (The Northern Thebaid).

Even if we are bedridden, we are to continue the struggle against the passions, producing fruits worthy of repentance. This work of perfection demands that we acquire patience and longsuffering. What better way to do this than when we lie on a bed of infirmity? St. Tikhon of Zadonsk says that in suffering we can find out whether our faith is living or just "theoretical." The test of true faith is patience in the midst of sufferings, for "patience is the Christian's coat of arms." "What is it to follow Christ?" he asks. It is "to endure all things, looking upon Christ Who suffered. Many wish to be glorified with Christ, but few seek to remain with the suffering Christ. Yet not merely by tribulation, but even in much tribulation does one enter the Kingdom of God."

To those who suppose that they can only progress in the spiritual life when all else is "well," St. John Cassian replies, "You should not think that you can find virtue when you are not irritated — for it is not in your power to prevent troubles from happening. Rather, you should look for patience as the result of your own humility and longsuffering, for patience does depend upon your own will" {Institutes). Towards the end of his life, St. Seraphim of Sarov suffered from open ulcers on his legs. "Yet," as his Life tells us, "in appearance he was always bright and cheerful, for in spirit he felt that heavenly peace and joy which are the riches of the glorious inheritance of the saints."
"You are stricken by this sickness," the Holy Fathers say, "so that you will not depart barren to God. If you can endure, and give thanks to God, this sickness will be accounted to you as a spiritual work" (Sts. Barsanouphius and John, Philokalia). 

Bishop Theophan the Recluse explains: "Enduring unpleasant things cheerfully, you approach a little to the martyrs. But if you complain, you will not only lose your share with the martyrs, but will be responsible for complaining besides. Therefore, be cheerful!"

In order not to lose heart when we fall sick we are to think about and mentally "kiss the sufferings of our Savior just as though we were with Him while He suffers abuses, wounds, humiliations...shame, the pain of the nails, the piercing with the lance, the flow of water and blood. From this we will receive consolation in our sickness. Our Lord will not let these efforts go unrewarded " (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk).

The patience we can learn on a sickbed cannot be overemphasized. Elder Macarius of Optina wrote about this to one who was ill:

"I was much pleased to hear from your relation how bravely you are bearing the cruel scourge of your heavy sickness. Verily, as the man of the flesh perishes, so is the spiritual man renewed."

And to another he wrote: "Praised be the Lord that you accept your illness so meekly! The bearing of sickness with patience and gratitude is reckoned highly by Him Who often rewards sufferers with His imperishable gifts.

"Ponder these words: Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed."
St. Ambrose of Milan compared an infirm body to a broken musical instrument. He explained how the "musician" can still produce God-pleasing "music" without his instrument:

"If a man used to singing to the accompaniment of a harp finds the harp broken, and its strings undone...he puts it aside and instead of calling for its notes he delights himself with his own voice.

"In the same way, a sick man allows the harp of his body to lie unused. He finds delight within his heart and comfort in the knowledge that his conscience is clear. He sustains himself with God's words and the prophetic writings and, holding these sweet and pleasant in his soul, he embraces them with his mind. Nothing can happen to him because God's graceful presence breathes favor upon him....He is filled with spiritual tranquility" (Jacob and the Happy Life).

Quite often the most God-pleasing spiritual "music" of all is produced in anonymity, by unknown or nearly-unknown saints. But such holy "melodies" are all the more sweet because they are heard by God alone. One such modern sufferer who lived an angel-like life in spite of advanced and terrible sickness was the holy New Russian Martyr, Mother Maria of Gatchina. Her story is known to us only because it pleased God to providentially arrange for one of her visitors, Professor I. M. Andreyev, to record his memories of her.

Mother Maria suffered from encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and Parkinson's disease. "Her whole body became as it were chained and immovable, her face anemic and like a mask; she could speak, but she began to talk with half-closed mouth, through her teeth, pronouncing slowly and in a monotone. She was a total invalid and was in constant need of help and careful looking after. Usually this disease proceeds with sharp psychological changes, as a result of which such patients often ended up in psychiatric hospitals. But Mother Maria, being a total physical invalid, not only did not degenerate psychically, but revealed completely extraordinary features of personality and character not characteristic of such patients: she became extremely meek, humble, submissive, undemanding, concentrated in herself; she became engrossed in constant prayer, bearing her difficult condition without the least murmuring.

"As if as a reward for this humility and patience, the Lord sent her a gift: consolation of the sorrowing. Completely strange and unknown people, finding themselves in sorrows, grief, depression, and despondency, began to visit her and converse with her. And everyone who came to her left consoled, feeling an illumination of their grief, a pacifying of sorrow, a calming of fears, a taking away of depression and despondency" (The Orthodox Word, vol. 13, no. 3).

"Thus God has acted. Like a provident Father and not like a kidnapper has He first involved us in grievous things, giving us over to tribulation as it were to schoolmasters and teachers, so that being chastened and sobered by these things we may, after showing forth all patience and learning, all right discipline, inherit the Kingdom of Heaven" (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 18, On the Statues).”

Excerpts taken from:

Missionary Leaflet # EA30
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)

Purity of Heart in the Writings of the Philokalia

What is the purpose of the asceticism and repentance that have been described in the previous posts?  Again, it is a question the Fathers often asked of themselves, realizing how easy it is to make these practices ends rather the means to an end.  As with so many things in life we can be investing a lot of energy, working very hard but lose sight of where we are heading or what we are seeking.  In this the spiritual life (as we often make it) can become, strangely enough, analogous to an infatuation.  The word infatuation comes from in-fatuous which means “false light”.  Following a false light is the experience often had by those traveling in the desert at night.  They believe they see a light in the distance and so set out to reach it and find warmth and comfort for themselves.  However, it is actually an optical illusion and more often than not they would travel a great distance, expending much effort, only to realize that what promised light and warmth was nowhere to be found.  

Thus, knowing what our immediate purpose and ultimate end are in the spiritual life is essential and there is no better place to begin than with those who walked the path, the “narrow way,” before us.  In particular, there is a notable conversation on this very subject in the Philokalia.  John Cassian and his fellow monk and friend Germanus travelled from Gaul to Egypt in the 4th century to live with the Eastern monks in the Nile delta in order to bring back the wisdom of the Hesychast tradition to the West.  For nearly 20 years they lived with the monks and hermits in order to observe their way of life and learn from their collective wisdom.  

In the first volume of the Philokalia we find Cassian and Germanus engaged in a discussion with Abba Moses who puts this question to them:

“‘You have given up your country, your families, everything worldly in order to embrace a life in a foreign land among rude and uncultured people like us.  Tell, what was your purpose and what goal did you set before yourselves in doing all this?’  We replied: ‘We did it for the kingdom of heaven.’  In response Abba Moses said: ‘As for the goal, you have answered well; but what is the purpose which we set before us and which we pursue unwaveringly so as to reach the kingdom of heaven?  This you have not told me.’  When we confessed that we did not know, the old man replied: ‘The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God.  Its immediate purpose, however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule. . . .If we forget this purpose we cannot avoid frequently stumbling and losing our way, for we will be walking in the dark and straying from the proper path’” (Philokalia, Vol. 1, 95).

Yet, what is this purity of heart of which Abba Moses speaks?  Throughout the Philokalia it is described in various ways but most often the Fathers speak of purity as having God at the center of all of our thoughts, words and actions - having God as our one true desire, our beginning and end.  Anthony Coniaris captures this with great clarity and simplicity: 

“Purity of heart is not, first and foremost, a matter of avoiding all sorts of bad things; it is more so, desiring one supreme good above all.  It is to want one thing, to focus our whole life on that one thing.  What is that one thing?  It is to know God, love HIm, and serve Him with all our mind, heart and soul and strength.  When you are pure of heart, you place all your focus on what God wants of you.  You want to be godly, a person of integrity.  Your deepest desire is for God, not for the approval of people.  Thus, purity of heart means loving all people and having a single supreme purpose and direction, not being double minded and unstable (James 1:8).  Such purity or singleness of heart leads  to illumination which, in turn, leads to glorification and union with God” (Coniaris, “A Beginner’s Introduction to the Philokalia”, 122-123).  

Here we begin to see why purity of heart is so important, why it is the purpose of our asceticism, and something to which we must be entirely and exclusively consecrated.  Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann in their work “Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart” express it ever so pointedly: 

“To be on the way with a divided will, a small fraction of our energy and a mental hesitation, leads nowhere!  We must break radically with our habits, with our way of being and introduce into ourselves - through a decisive act which shakes our whole nature - a new idea force, a consecration of our energies to Jesus Christ so complete that to live from Him becomes for our heart the only desire, and for our will the only activity in all that we live and do. . . .all life becomes a single adoration.  Behind everything, there is the presence: we must feel it always and everywhere, awaken to its constant, intimate, enveloping nearness, intensely perceive it and commune with it in every moment.  To turn all our emotions toward the presence of Christ is the most intense way of purification for the heart.  Sooner or later ‘the pure in heart will see God,’ will feel Him, touch Him, hear Him, smell Him” (155-156).  

Indeed, the more we are purified the more we shall see.  This is captured in exquisite fashion by St. Maximus the Confessor who wrote in the 7th century: 

“If, according to the words of the Divine Apostle, Christ dwells in our hearts by faith and in Him ‘are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’, then in our hearts are to be found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  And they (these treasures) are revealed to the heart according to the measure of purification of each person by the commandments.  This is the ‘treasure hid in a field’ of your heart, which you have not yet found because of your inaction.  For if you had found it, you would have sold all that you had and bought that field.  But you have abandoned that field and work nearby, where there is nothing but thorns and thistles.  Therefore, the Savior says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.’  They will see Him and the treasures that are in Him, when they purify themselves by love and self-mastery; the more they are purified, the more (of God) will they see.”  

Ultimately, the importance of purity of heart lies in our destiny.  “The more of God’s love and mercy we receive, the more we commit ourselves to Him, the more we love Him and serve Him, the more we shall be able to experience His kingdom within us, and the better prepared will our eyes be for the brilliance of heaven” (Coniaris, 132). 

Joyful Sorrow: Compunction and the Gift of Tears in the Philokalia

“Blessed are they that mourn,” our Lord said in the second Beatitude.  But mourn, weep, for what?  Life certainly is filled with its sorrows and losses and often we may be moved to tears.  Yet, how are we to understand our Lord’s teaching and the blessing that comes to those who weep?

This is a question that the Fathers of the Philokalia often asked and through them we discover that such mourning is a spiritual gift and the fruit of true repentance.  In the Christian East, the Greek word for such sorrow is Penthos.  While there is no English equivalent for the word, we can define it as “joyful sorrow”: a sorrow that arises from a broken and contrite heart, an inner sorrow for the sins that one has committed.  However, such tears of compunction, the Fathers tell us, lead to a true and abiding joy.  “‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,’ says the psalmist. ‘These tears,’ writes St. John Chrysostom, ‘do not bring sorrow; they bring more joy than all the laughter of the world can gain for you.’ ‘Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting,’ says the psalmist (126:5).  Archim. Sophrony writes, ‘Stemming originally from bitter repentance, weeping develops into tears of rapture with Divine love.  And this is a sign that our prayer is heard and through its action we are led into new imperishable life’” (Coniaris, “Philokalia: Bible of Orthodox Spirituality”, 175).

Such tears of compunction are a gift of God, the fruit of baptismal grace and the renewal of our baptism.  St. John Climacus wrote: “God in His love for mankind gave us tears. . . If God in His mercy had not granted to men this second baptism, then few indeed would be saved. . . When our soul departs from this life, we shall not be accused because we have not worked miracles . . .but we shall all certainly have to account to God because we have not wept unceasingly for our sins.”  

This view of the importance of tears may seem paradoxical, scandalous or simply unnecessary to many in our day.  Yet, such tears are merely the fruit of the grace already acquired in baptism and have been described as “the infallible sign that the heart has been overwhelmed by the love of God . . . These charismatic tears, which are the consummation of repentance are at the same time the first fruits of infinite joy: ‘Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.’  Tears purify our nature, for repentance is not merely our effort, our anguish, but it is also the resplendent gift of the Holy Spirit, penetrating and transforming our hearts” (Ibid., 173).  

Obsessive guilt or scrupulosity only leads to hopelessness and despair, but true compunction and the cleansing tears that accompany it are a true gift of God meant to lead us back to Him and the embrace of His love.  Indeed it has been described as the most precious thing on earth:

“There is an old legend according to which God said to one of His angels: ‘Go down to earth and bring back the most precious thing in the world.’  One angel brought a drop of blood back from a person who had sacrificed his life to save another: God said, ‘Indeed, O Angel, this is precious in my sight, but it is not the most precious thing in the world.’  Another angel caught the last breath of a nurse who died from a dread disease she contracted in nursing others to health.  God smiled at the angel and said, “Indeed, O Angel, sacrifice in behalf of others is very precious in my sight, but it is not the most precious thing in the world.’  Finally one angel captured and brought a small vial containing the tear of a sinner who had repented and returned to God.  God beamed upon the angel as He said: “Indeed, O Angel, you have brought me the most precious thing in the world - the tear of repentance which opens the gates in heaven.”

Such is what we hear from the Our Lord Himself when he taught, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.”  God secretly brings joy and consolation to those who in their heart of hearts are repentant and weep for their sins and all of heaven itself rejoices over the return of even one who was lost. 

Understanding the Passions according to the Philokalia: Healing of the Soul and through the Science of the Fathers

Now that we have spoken a bit about asceticism and its goal, theosis or deification, it is appropriate I think to address the specifics of that path of conversion and transformation.  What is it that we must do on our part and with the grace of God on the path of return - to restore the image that has been sullied by our sin and to open ourselves up to the gift of becoming partakers of the divine nature made possible through Christ?  

Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann, in their wonderful book “Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart” describe this path beautifully; with an understanding arising from and obviously rooted in personal experience. It is perhaps the clearest description that I have come across and since the book is out of print I offer you the following lengthy excerpt:

“Rediscovering that which unifies us, rediscovering our first innocence leads us to become one with God to such an extent that there is no longer the consciousness within us of a differentiated self, distinct from God.  All that we know then is love, nothing else: the unique desire for the unique desired One which makes life a communion of love with the Creator and with all that He endlessly creates at each moment.

The opposite is our propulsion toward the exterior which kindles the multiplicity of desires and makes of life only hatred and division: ‘We devour ourselves reciprocally like serpents.  The communion of love is replaced by the hidden fear of death, and this death,’ says Maximus the Confessor, ‘is the cause of our turning love into destructive passions.’  The self is so closed in upon itself by this metaphysical anguish that the other, including God, is always, even unconsciously, a potential enemy. 

In a person whose spirit is cut off from God, the soul enters into a radical change of perspective and passes into a state of dualism.  Instead of living through God, of seeing in His light and with His eyes, the soul sees and lives through the self in an autonomous way.  This is a false self, nonbeing, the empirical existence where each act of affirmation of the self increases the dualistic tension between the self and God, between the self and others.  And as the self depends upon things to affirm it, the ditch never ceases to be dug and God Himself becomes an antagonistic and hostile being, a rival.  Little by little all relationships are falsified: with oneself, with others, with God, with the whole of creation.  This ontological denaturation brings to life in us a sort of predisposition to bad faith, where we constantly try to make things other than what they are, so that they serve our appetite for pleasure and power and our arbitrary impulses in every moment.  This is the ‘noisy tumult of the passions’ according to the patristic expression . . . 

Here is the beginning of decay.  Our existence is fractured and we plunge into internal contradictions that can only make us suffer.  A person who persists in walking with a broken leg will only suffer; and every desire comes out of this deep fracture which we carry within and which inevitably brings us to tragedy.  The great significance of true asceticism is found here: in discerning the motives behind our way of being and acting.

Where does my desire come from and where is it going?  That is the ground of asceticism, its primary matter, and the very place of our penitence.  Asceticism is a guardian over every interior and exterior movement.  Nothing is possible - no accomplishment, no happiness, no peace - as long as desire is turned in upon itself, egocentric and greedy!  There is no spiritual way or prayer which can be maintained without battling these passionate desires” (Goettmann, “Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart,” 120-121).

The Desert Fathers understood the word “passion” to mean all the egocentric desires through which the demon seeks to capture human beings.  These we must know along with their most subtle workings within us if we are to fully engage in the spiritual battle that confronts us.  Such knowledge and the hard won skill of recognizing evil in order to avoid it is so valuable that St. Isaac the Syrian stated: “He who sees his sin is greater than he who resurrects the dead.”  It is through this interior work that the passions are not destroyed but have their energy redirected and reordered toward God - to eternal Life.

The Goettmann’s aptly describe this purification of the passions as a kind of “‘homemade psychoanalysis,’ a therapy which attacks the roots of the illnesses of our being, not only to heal us on a human level, but to heal us for our union with God” (Ibid., 122).  Faith is the point of departure for the Desert Fathers from modern psychology; the goal is to share in the life and intimacy of the Holy Trinity and the Fathers see the full flowering of the personality not simply as a function of human needs and potentials.

This is exactly the approach to and understanding of the writings of the Fathers of the Philokalia presented by Hierotheos Vlachos in his masterful work “Orthodox Psychotherapy: the Science of the Fathers.”  He presents us with much different understanding of the word "Psychotherapy" than we often have in mind.

Psyche, Vlachos reminds us, comes from the Greek and means "soul".  In the Hebrew and Christian tradition the soul is the essence of one's existence.  It represents the whole living being of an individual person.  The soul in this sense is manifested through the body, the mind and other facets of the one's being.  When we speak of "Psychotherapy" then we mean the healing of one's soul.

There are great differences then between modern psychotherapy and Christian psychotherapy.  Contemporary psychotherapy focuses more on the mental and emotional dimensions of a person, thoughts, emotions and feelings; in particular by addressing the disorder and pathology that one may be experiencing in these dimensions.  But most modern psychotherapy does not see itself as facilitating growth of person in their relationship with God; that is, in the realization and expression of divine truth.  It hopes certainly to encourage more efficient living and functioning in the world.  And yet, its values and intentions often reflect those that prevail in the culture at the given time.  For example, modern psychotherapy often seeks to bolster one's capacity to gratify needs and desire and to achieve a sense of autonomous mastery over self and circumstance; that is, self-realization and self-fulfillment.

Christian Psychotherapy seeks liberation from disordered attachments and self-giving surrender to the power and will of God.  The manner in which personal growth and healing take place depend not on self-mastery but upon the grace of God.  The true healer, the Physician, is Jesus.  The root of our illness, the disorder and lack of integration we experience, our sickness of soul, comes from sin.  It is this we seek to remedy in and through our relationship with Jesus Christ (see “Orthodox Psychotherapy, pp 97-118).     

It has been said that the Desert Fathers have provided us with a map of the soul: 

“The passions and temptations which must inevitably beset any Christian were unearthed and described with almost scientific precision.  Pride, vainglory, lust - each passion was isolated and catalogued.  This ‘map’ of the Christian soul was then passed on from one generation of ascetics to another, each generation profiting from the discoveries of the previous ones.  Not only were the passions and temptations which afflict the soul unearthed, however, but a ‘system’ was developed to combat them.  This system was later to become know as ‘hesychasm’ or ‘prayer of the heart’” (Coniaris, “Philokalia: Bible of Orthodox Spirituality”, 148-149).

In future posts, we will consider how the Fathers of the Philokalia came to categorize the principle vices that give rise to these passions, how they manifest themselves and how they are remedied.  The Fathers had no illusions about human nature, its woundedness and through the insights born from their spiritual life we stand to gain a deeper understanding of the human person and the truth that peace of soul can be bought only at the price of a long struggle.