"Strike the Serpent on the Head": The Philokalia on Recognizing and Resisting Temptation
With constant vigilance and unceasing prayer, the Fathers sought above all to free themselves from the ascendancy of the passions. The practice of such vigilance allowed them to recognize evil before being tempted to commit it. Thus, Heyschios along with many others (St. Mark the Ascetic, St. John of Sinai, Evagrius, etc.) gives a “minute description of the progression of evil, and lays bare the technique or the mechanism of temptation.” Straightforward as it is, Hesychios’ description needs very little commentary and his model, while differing in some small degree, is essentially the same as that of Evagrius.
Hesychios begins by reminding us that temptation comes to us through our thoughts, their attachment to our imagination, and subsequent development:
“Just as it is impossible for fire and water to pass through the same pipe together, so it is impossible for sin to enter the heart without first knocking at its door in the form of a fantasy provoked by the devil” (Philokalia, Vol. I, 170).
Knowing this, we must be ever on guard for the first sign and provocation to sin and ceaselessly invoke the Lord through the Jesus prayer. If we give ourselves over to the provocation, then comes our “coupling with it, or the mingling of our thoughts with those of the wicked demons. Third, comes our assent to the provocation, with both sets of intermingling thoughts contriving how to commit the sin in practice. Fourth comes the concrete actions - that is, the sin itself” (Ibid., 170).
Once the provocation is engaged, that is, once the serpent gets his head in the door, the battle is most assuredly lost and the unholy mingling of our own thoughts with those of the demons draws us quickly down the path to full consent.
Paul Evdokimov, in his work “Struggle with God”, describes this movement in greater detail:
“The first movement of ‘contamination’ comes from a representation, image, idea, desire crossing our mind; something very fleeting that arises abruptly and solicits our attention. From the subconscious the appeal rises to consciousness and makes an effort to be kept there. This is not yet sin, far from it, but it is the presence of a suggestion. It is in this first moment that the immediate reaction of the attention on the watch is decisive. The temptation is going to go away or it is going to remain. Spiritual writers make use of an image that was familiar in the desert: ‘Strike the serpent on the head’ before he enters the cell. If the whole serpent enters, the struggle will be much more laborious.
If the attention does not react, the following phase passes to pleasure. A willing attention to the tempting solicitation causes a certain pleasure, becoming an equivocal attitude that is already cooperating. St. Ephrem speaks of the ‘pleasant conversation’ of the soul with a persistent suggestion.
An enjoyment by anticipation, imaginary at the moment, marks the third stage. A tacit agreement, an unavowed consent, orients one toward an accomplishment judged posssible, for it is passionately desirable. In principle, the decision has indeed been taken; in the effective coveting of the object, the sin has been committed mentally. This is judgment of the Gospel on the impure look in which adultery has already been pre-consummated.
The fourth stage effectively consummates the act. It forms the beginning of a passion, of a thirst henceforth unquenchable. When it has become a habit, the passion neutralizes every resistance. The person disintegrates in the avowal of his powerlessness; he is bewitched and tends toward his implacable end . . .”(149)
We are often oblivious to this progression described by Hesychios and Evdokimov because of our lack of internal vigilance and prayer. We heedlessly expose ourselves and our senses, especially in the West, to a whole host of images, ideas, and practices that make us vulnerable and easy prey to such attacks. We speak of “falling” into sin, but more often than not we jump into it with both feet and willingly. To obtain such vigilance, to cut off all such temptations at the moment of provocation, will require a diligence and discipline not often seen in our culture, even among those with strong religious sensibilities. We hear the Lord say in the gospel, “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force”. And likewise, we hear him tell us, “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out”. But we rarely take our Lord at His word. In these cases, to be sure, our Lord isn’t counseling violence toward anyone or encouraging self mutilation. But he speaks of the willingness we must have, at times, to do violence to ourselves in the sense that we cut out of our lives those things that make us vulnerable to the provocation to sin, especially when we have repeatedly given ourselves over to the sin so that it has become a passion - an habitual response over which we have very little control. This is the sacrifice that few in our day seem willing or have the courage to make.