Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent Handout - Step 30 On Love

            As we remarked in the very beginning of our study, the Ladder of Divine Ascent is a way to union with God.  This is the goal of the spiritual life: direct, unhindered and undistracted communion with the Holy Trinity.  Everything that St. John has outlined, the negative and the positive, has been presented with this goal in mind: to prepare ourselves to know God and, in knowing God, to experience Eternal Life.  What is the highest pinnacle of the knowledge of God?  When is our labor no longer preparation for, but actual enjoyment of the presence of God?  St. John answers: "when we love."  He writes: "Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible.  In its activity it is inebriation of the soul."  In another paragraph he explains: "Not even a mother clings to her nursing child as a son of love clings to the Lord at all times."  In still another place, he writes: "Love grants prophecy, miracles.  It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul.  It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity."  It is truly significant that St. John isolates love as the highest expression of spirituality.  For those of us who have grown up in the West, we have tended to associate great spiritual progress with either intellectual achievement or social action.  Neither of these is antithetical to the spiritual life, but neither represents its highest attainment either.  The person who truly knows God is love even as God is love.

            This too is an important consideration.  We all from time to time love.  Love is something we do and something we give.  At best, love is an "attribute" which is part of our inner selves.  In this respect, for us, love is most often "premeditated."  We think and plan to love.  This is the beginning of the spiritual life.  Those fully deified do not "love" as an expression of forethought or will, but they themselves have become love.  Here is where true union with God takes place.  To know the heart of God is to know love.  "Love" is not an attribute of God, which takes its place among the other "attributes" of God.  Love is God and God is love.  Everything He does, even His punishment and wrath against sin, is an expression of His love.

            To love is to be obsessed by and with the thing or person which is loved.  The deified ones are completely overtaken by desire for God Himself.  St. John explains: "Someone truly in love keeps before his mind's eye the face of the beloved and embraces it there tenderly.  Even during sleep the longing continues unappeased and he murmurs to his beloved."

            This kind of consuming and exhilarating love for God is a gift, a grace, which comes from Him.  This is the mystical side of the spiritual life.  We can prepare ourselves to receive God's love; this is the ascetical side.  But true love comes from God and draws us back to God.  Having ascended the Ladder through the practice of the virtues, at its pinnacle, we encounter the Eternal Mystery, we are drawn into that Light which is also Darkness and that Darkness which is also Light and we learn the meaning of the parable: "We love because He first loved us."  We encounter Someone bigger, more powerful and more real than all of our feeble attempts to understand Him.  We find the End of our search, and in experiencing Him, realize the End to be simply the Beginning.

1-8            St. John begins by defining love.  But given that it is a divine attribute, St. John proceeds with caution.

            The man who wants to talk about love is undertaking to speak about God.  But it is risky to talk about God and could even be dangerous for the unwary.  Angels know how to speak about love, but even they do so only in proportion to the light within them.
            "God is love" (1 John 4:16).  But someone eager to define this is blindly striving to measure the sand in the ocean.
            Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible.  In its activity it is inebriation of the soul.  Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility.
            Love is the banishment of every sort of contrariness, for love thinks no evil.

9-24            St. John then speaks of the attitudes and aspirations of those who love and how they find themselves consumed by their desire for God.  Wholly transformed by love they begin to take on heavenly qualities - sustained and strengthened in ways unknown.

            Not even a mother clings to her nursing child as a son of love clings to the Lord at all times.
            Someone truly in love keeps before his mind's eye the face of the beloved and embraces it there tenderly.  Even during sleep the longing continues unappeased, and he murmurs to his beloved.  That is how it is for the body.  And that is how it is for the spirit.  A man wounded by love had this to say about himself - and it really amazes me - "I sleep (because nature commands this) but may heart is awake (because of the abundance of my love)" (Song of Songs 5:2).  You should take note, my brother, that the stag, which is the soul, destroys reptiles and then, inflamed by love, as if struck by an arrow, it longs and grows faint for the love of God (cf. Ps 41:1).

            Holy love has a way of consuming some.  This is what is meant by the one who said, "You have ravished our hearts, ravished them" (Song of Songs 4:9).  And it makes others bright and overjoyed.  In this regard it has been said: "My heart was full of trust and I was helped, and my flesh has revived" (Ps. 27:7).  For when the heart is cheerful, the face beams (cf. Prov. 15:13), and a man flooded with the love of God reveals in his body, as if in a mirror, the splendor of his soul, a glory like that of Moses when he came face to face with God (cf. Exod. 34:29-35).
            Men who have attained this angelic state often forget to eat, and I really think they do not even miss their food.  No wonder, since an opposite desire drives out the very wish to eat, and indeed I suspect that the bodies of these incorruptible men are immune to sickness, for their bodies have been sanctified and rendered incorruptible by the flame of chastity which has put out the flame [of passions].  My belief is that they accept without any pleasure the food set out in front of them, for just as subterranean waters nourish the roots of a plant, the fires of heaven are there to sustain their souls.

            Love grants prophecy, miracles.  It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul.  It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity.
            Most beautiful of all the virtues, tell us where you feed your flock, where you take your noonday rest (cf. Song of Songs 1:7).  Enlighten us, end our thirst, lead us, show us the way, since we long to soar up to you.  You rule everything, and now you have enraptured my soul.  I am unable to hold in your flame, and therefore I will go forward praising you.  "You rule the power of the sea, you make gentle (and deaden) the surge of its waves.  You make humble the proud thought as a wounded man.  With your powerful arm you have scattered your enemies" (cf. Ps. 88:9-10), and you have made your lovers invincible.

25-26            At the end of his discussion, St. John records for us the teaching of Love Himself.

            "My love, you will never be able to know how beautiful I am unless you get away from the grossness of the flesh.  So let this ladder teach you the spiritual union of the virtues.  And I am there on the summit, for as the great man said, a man who knew me well: `Remaining now are faith, hope, and love, these three.  But love is the greatest of them all' (1 Cor. 13:13)."


Monday, November 18, 2013

Cassian Study Group Starting January 2014


Philip was not content with having thus acquired several penitents; but desiring to preserve them, he, like a good father, invented sundry exercises by which they should not only maintain, but keep continually increasing their fervor and advancing in spiritual things.  For this end, and considering the hours after dinner as the most dissipated and dangerous part of the day, he arranged that they should come to him in his room at that time; and there he gathered them around him, and had a sort of conference with them.  Sometimes he proposed a moral question, as of the beauty of virtue and the deformity of vice . . . In these conversations he made great use of the works of John Cassian, as being full of moral and useful instruction.   

(From the Life of St. Philip Neri - edited by Blessed John Henry Newman)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent Step 29 On Dispassion

            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).           

Ladder of Divine Ascent Step 23 On Pride Part II Podcast

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 28 on Prayer

             As we noted in the beginning of our study of The Ladder, the goal of all spiritual labors is communion with God.  We do not seek an abstract vision of the Divine, nor do we labor for a legal verdict declaring us "not guilty."  Rather, we aim at communion and union; we set our sights on the true, intimate knowledge of God which is "life eternal" (John 17:3).  According to St. John, prayer must be looked at as both the means to and the achievement of this knowledge.

            The goal of prayer is God.  This is important to note as we begin.  In prayer and through prayer we seek Him.  How easy it is for us to reduce prayer to the fulfillment of some external "rule of prayer" which must be completed before we can continue on with the fulfillment of our other "external" requirements.  The great tragedy of our spiritual lives is that prayer itself can become part of this "world and its ways" rather than an abandonment of this world so as to pursue the next.  "Rise from the love of the world and the love of pleasure.  Put care aside, strip your mind, refuse your body.  Prayer, after all, is a turning away from the world, visible and invisible.  What have I in heaven?  What have I longed for on earth besides You?  Nothing except to cling to You in undistracted prayer.  Wealth pleases some, glory others, possession others, but what I want is to cling to God and to put the hopes of my dispassion in Him"  Understood in this light, prayer thus is itself a means of purification and of judgment.  "War reveals the love of a soldier for his king, and the time and practice of prayer show up a monk's love for God.  So your prayer shows where you stand."  Prayer is a mirror, showing to us the true nature of our desires and of our love.  If we love God, we will love to pray.  The stronger the love for God, the greater our hearts will be drawn to the dialog of prayer, the more He will be the object of our thoughts and desires, the more He will consume us and become the end of our struggles.

            Prayer has its external aspects: the words, the discipline, the posture, the knots on the prayer rope. But these external aspects must find their realization in the internal state of our soul.  St. John outlines a continuous method of prayer which incorporates both of these: "Get ready for your set time of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul."  For the true struggler for God, prayer is not episodic; it is a way of life.  Its external expression changes: sometimes it is the reading of psalms, other times the singing of hymns, still further it may be the quiet saying of the Jesus prayer or the recollection of God in the fulfillment of our daily tasks.  Gradually, prayer itself establishes its own rhythm in our lives.  In the beginning we force ourselves to pray; in the end it is prayer itself which forces us.

            For those who are beginning the spiritual life, prayer requires hard work.  Here the external aspects of prayer dominate.  We can only learn to prayer one way: by doing it.  And by doing lots of it . . . over and over again, training our hearts to recognize and feel the words spoken by our mouths and considered in our minds.  We force ourselves to practice.  Very often this seems strange and foreign to us.  It does not seem natural; we totter and stumble.  We finish our prayers and feel as if we have simply said "words" without really praying them.  We may often feel "hypocritical" in our prayers, as if they are external and therefore fake.  This is the beginning of prayer.  If we persevere, pushing ourselves to say the words and urging our hearts to join the mind and the mouth, prayer will become internalized.  Prayer will not be something which comes from the outside, but it will come from the inside out.  The words will flow from our hearts, rather than off the page.  We will still say and think the same words, but these words will be ours, rather than someone else's.  Our mouths, minds and hearts will be one.  Our being will be united in prayer.  This is the middle stage of prayer.  If we persevere in this, not allowing our hearts to become distracted, the experience of prayer becomes so much a part of us that the words themselves fade away and prayer becomes ecstasy and the immediate presence of God.  This is the third and final stage; this is deification, the heights of theosis, to which only the saints rise in this life.

            As we struggle to pray, there are several attitudes which we must be careful to maintain.  The first is humility.  Satan tries to rob us of our humility during prayer by taking away from us the simplicity necessary to true prayer.  He divides us by getting us to think about ourselves even as we are praying.  We observe ourselves from the outside, thinking about how well we are praying, how long we have been praying, etc.  To pray is to lose ourselves in God; it is to abandon the pursuit of self by pursuing God.  Satan also tries to rob us of our humility after we pray by telling us how good we are and how effective and powerful our prayers are for others.  Once again, notice how he tempts us to externalize our prayer and to focus not on God, but on ourselves as "pray-ers"  The truth is: we cannot pursue God so long as we think about ourselves.

            Another important attitude necessary for true prayer is gratitude.  St. John advises: "Heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer."  All prayer to be true prayer must be eucharistic.  This means that prayer must flow out of a thankful heart.  Before it becomes intercession, prayer is first a response to grace received.  A thankful heart is of necessity driven to give thanks.  It cannot remain silent, but is must communicate its thankfulness to the Source of all blessings.

            Still further, for our prayer to lead to union with God, it is always necessary for it to be offered in a spirit of contrition.  St. John notes: "Even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins."  If we ever appear in God's presence and think that we belong there, if we ever lose sight of the priority of grace and our need for it at all times, then we have lost prayer.  It is for certain that we are not talking to God but only to ourselves or worse yet to Satan who has the capacity of transforming himself into an angel of light.  Contrition is the key to being delivered from spiritual delusion.  Those who pray in a spirit of repentance are not easily fooled by Satan and his demonic hosts.

            Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we must understand that prayer is not something gained simply from the teaching of others.  St. John writes: "You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so.  For that, you require your own natural power of sight.  In the same way, you cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer.  Prayer has its own special teacher in God.  He grants the prayer of him who prays.  And He blesses the years of the just."           

1-3            Prayer defined.

            Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God.  Its effect is to hold the world together.  It achieves reconciliation with God.
            Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears.  It is an expiation of sin, a bridge across temptation, a bulwark against affliction.  It wipes out conflict, is the work of angels, and is the nourishment of all bodiless beings.  Prayer is future gladness, action without end, wellspring of virtues, source of grace, hidden progress, food of the soul, enlightenment of the mind, an axe against despair, hope demonstrated, sorrow done away with.  It is wealth for monks, treasure of hermits, anger diminished.  It is a mirror of progress, a demonstration of success, evidence of one's condition, the future revealed, a sign of glory.  For the man who really prays it is the court, the judgment hall, the tribunal of the Lord - and this prior to the judgment that is to come.

4-18            St. John then describes the necessary preparation for true prayer, the essential attitudes that help to foster prayer and the perseverance required to sustain prayer.

            Those of us wishing to stand before our King and God and to speak with Him should not rush into this without some preparation, lest it should happen that - seeing us from afar without arms and without the dress appropriate to those who appear before the King - He should command His servants and His slaves to lay hold of us, to drive us out of His sight, to tear up our petitions and to throw them in our faces.
            When you set out to appear before the Lord, let the garment of your soul be woven throughout with the thread of wrongs no longer remembered.  Otherwise, prayer will be useless to you.
            Pray in all simplicity.  The publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single utterance.

            . . . heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer.  Next should be confession and genuine contrition of soul.  After that should come our request to the universal King.

            In your prayers there is no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babblings of children that have more often won the heart of the Father in heaven.
            Try not to talk excessively in your prayer, in case your mind is distracted by the search for words.  One word from the publican sufficed to placate God, and a single utterance saved the thief.  Talkative prayer frequently distracts the mind and deludes it, whereas brevity makes for concentration.

            However pure you may be, do not be forward in your dealings with God.  Approach Him rather in all humility, and you will be given still more boldness.  And even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins.  Heed Paul's cry regarding sinners "of whom I am the first" (1 Tim 1:15).

            Make the effort to raise up, or rather, to enclose your mind within the words of your prayer; and if, like a child, it gets tired and falters, raise it up again.  The mind, after all, is naturally unstable, but the God who can do everything can also give it firm endurance.  Persevere in this, therefore, and do not grow weary; and He who sets a boundary to the sea of the mind will come to you too during your prayer and will say, "Thus far you shall come, and no farther" (Job 38:11).  Spirit cannot be bound, but where He is found everything yields to the Creator of spirit.

19-37            In the following paragraphs, St. John describes the various stages of prayer, those things which lead to its degradation, appropriate forms of posture and when they should be used, the ultimate goal of prayer, and the value of prayer in and of itself - regardless of whether or not it offers us any consolation.  He also speaks of how a monk must conduct himself at the times before prayer and the importance of being faithful to designated times for prayer. 

            The beginning of prayer is the expulsion of distractions from the very start by a single thought; the middle stage is the concentration on what is being said or thought; its conclusion is rapture in the Lord.
            If you are careful to train your mind never to wander, it will stay by you even at mealtimes.  But if you allow it to stray freely, then you will never have it beside you.

            There is a difference between the tarnish of prayer, its disappearance, the robbery of it, and its defilement.  Prayer is tarnished when we stand before God, our minds seething with irrelevancies.  It disappears when we are led off into useless cares.  It is robbed when our thoughts stray without our realization of the fact.  And it is defiled when we are in any way under attack.
            If we happen not to be alone at the time of prayer, let us form within ourselves the demeanor of someone who prays.  But if the servants of praise are not sharing our company, we may openly put on the appearance of those at prayer.  For among the weak, the mind often conforms to the body.
            Total contrition is necessary for everyone, but particularly for those who have come to the King to obtain forgiveness of their sins.

            Rise from love of the world and love of pleasure.  Put care aside, strip your mind, refuse your body.  Prayer, after all, is a turning away from the world, visible and invisible.  What have I in heaven?  Nothing.  What have I longed for on earth besides You?  Nothing except simply to cling always to You in undistracted prayer.  Wealth pleases some, glory others, possessions others, but what I want is to cling to God and to put the hopes of my dispassion in Him.

            Our good Redeemer, by speedily granting what is asked, draws to His love those who are grateful.  But He keeps ungrateful souls praying a long time before Him, hungering and thirsting for what they want, since a badly trained dog rushes off as soon as it is given bread and leaves the giver behind.
            After a long spell of prayer, do not say that nothing has been gained, for you have already achieved something.  For, after all, what higher good is there than to cling to the Lord and to persevere in unceasing union with Him?

            Get ready for your set time of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul.  In this way, you will soon make progress.   I have observed that those who were outstanding in obedience and who tried as far as possible to keep in mind the thought of God were in full control of their minds and wept copiously as soon as they stood in prayer, for holy obedience had prepared them for this.

            War reveals the love of a soldier for his king, and the time and practice of prayer show up a monk's love for God.  So your prayer shows where you stand.  Indeed, theologians say that prayer is a monk's mirror.
            Someone who is occupied with some task and continues with it at the hour of prayer is being fooled by the demons, for these thieves aim to steal one hour after another from us.

38-48            Our prayer must be examined closely to determine its true quality and power.  As prayer develops, John states, there is less need for words or images.  Both can lead to distraction.

            A child is examined each day without fail regarding what he has learned from his teacher.  And it is reasonable to ask that there be a reckoning of each prayer we have undertaken, in order that we may have an idea of the power we have received from God.  You should see to this.  And when you have prayed soberly, you will soon have to cope with bouts of ill temper, something our enemies aim for.

            When a man has found the Lord, he no longer has to use words when he is praying, for the Spirit Himself will intercede for him with groans that cannot be uttered (Rom 8:26).
            Do not form sensory images during prayer, for distraction will certainly follow.
49-64            We must learn, St. John tells us, to seize the moment when the Spirit beckons us to prayer, especially when given an abundance of fervor and contrition.  When in the midst of prayer we must drive off temptations and anything, good or bad, that might distract us or draw us to some other activity.

            Do not stop praying as long as, by God's grace, the fire and the water have not been exhausted, for it may happen that never again in your whole life will you have such a chance to ask for the forgiveness of your sins.

            A man stands before an earthly monarch.  But he turns his face away and talks to the enemies of the king, and the king will be offended.  In the same way, the Lord will be offended by someone who at prayer time turns away towards unclean thoughts.  So if the dog keeps coming, drive him off with a stick and never give in to him, however much he may persist.

            The hour of prayer is no time for thinking over necessities, nor even spiritual tasks, because you may lose the better part (Luke 10:42).

            If you are always in dialog with the King in regard to your enemies, take heart whenever they attack you.  A long struggle will not be necessary for you, for they will soon give up of their own accord.  These unholy beings are afraid that you may earn a crown as a result of your battle against them through prayer, and besides, when scourged by prayer they will run away as though from a fire.
65-66            God, the true Teacher of prayer.  

            Always be brave, and God will teach you your prayer.
            You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so.  For that, you require your own natural power of sight.  In the same way, you cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer.  Prayer has its own special teacher in God, who "teaches man knowledge" (Ps. 93:10).  He grants the prayer of him who prays.  And He blesses the years of the just.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 27 on Stillness

            Stillness may be equated to peace of soul; the absence of spiritual warfare and the presence of calm.  We beginners in the spiritual life cannot imagine what it would be like to be totally unaffected by the disquietude of the world; it is beyond our ability to comprehend never being tempted to speak in haste and never experiencing the movements of anger in our hearts.  The beginner must be content with experiencing moments of this peace.  He must strive to win this peace, by overcoming all the passions which seek to overthrow it. 
            It is only when we begin to center our thoughts on the spiritual world within by pushing far from us the noise of the external world that we notice how little peace is found there.  The first notice of this peacelessness is often enough to drive many back to the diversions of the world.  For some, the existential pain of their passionate soul is too great to bear and they choose to run away rather than stay and face it.  For those who choose to stay, the experience of the true state of their souls is a necessary lesson.  We first learn the presence of our soul by its pain rather than its peace.  As we continue in our spiritual lives, it is this pain which will always direct us back to the concerns of the soul when we begin to stray.
            As we set a priority on peace, we will begin to notice more and more the things in our lives that rob us of peace.  We will begin to find the noise of this world to be a hindrance rather than a help.  We will notice how much of our time is spent following distractions.  We will begin to change our lifestyle on the basis of what produces peace in our souls.  We will inevitably be led to a love of quiet and solitude.
            However, an important thing to note is that this is a gradual process.  St. John is very quick to point out the dangers of embracing too much "stillness" before we are spiritually ready:  "The man who is foul-tempered and conceited, hypocritical and a nurse of grievances, ought never to enter the life of solitude, for fear that he should gain nothing but the loss of his sanity."
            Above all, then, we must remember that the path to internal peace is not an easy one.  Therefore, we must set ourselves for a long struggle.  We will not achieve the state of constant peace in a day.  Perhaps it is enough for us today not to have allowed anger to enter our soul; perhaps it is enough for us to have refrained from that idle word which stirs up passion; perhaps it is enough for us to have refrained from viewing those things which would have aroused our sexual passions.  Each day we add virtue to virtue.  Each day we embrace the struggle.  Each day we repent of our failures.  Each day we continue the struggle.  In this way, although we may never be completely successful, we will never stop trying.  And God who grants the prize, will consider our struggles to be victory and will grant us His peace for eternity.

1-29            In these opening paragraphs, St. John defines stillness, distinguishes its various stages and describes the qualities of those who are seeking or have obtained this virtue.

            Stillness of the body is the accurate knowledge and management of one's feelings and perceptions.  Stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one's thoughts and is an unassailable mind. 

            The start of stillness is the rejection of all noisiness as something that will trouble the depths of the soul.  The final point is when one has no longer a fear of noisy disturbance, when one is immune to it.  He who when he goes out does not go out in his intellect is gentle and wholly a house of love, rarely moved to speech and never to anger.  The opposite to all this is manifest.

            The cell of a hesychast is the body that surrounds him, and within him is the dwelling place of knowledge. 

Close the door of your cell to your body, the door of your tongue to talk, and the gate within to evil spirits.  The endurance of the sailor is tried by the noonday sun or when he is becalmed, and the endurance of the solitary is tested by his lack of necessary supplies.  The one jumps into the water and swims when he is impatient, the other goes in search of a crowd when he is discouraged.

            Sit in a high place and keep watch if you can, and you will see the thieves come, and you will discover how they come, when and from where, how many and what kind they are as they steal your clusters of grapes.
            When the watchman gets tired, he stands up and he prays.  And then, sitting down once more, he bravely carries on his task.

            The solitary runs away from everyone, but does so without hatred, just as another runs toward the crowd, even if without enthusiasm.  The solitary does not wish to be cut off from the divine sweetness.

            Go now.  At once.  Give away everything you have. ("Sell what you own."  That needs time) . . .  Take up your cross, carrying it in obedience, and endure strongly the burden of your thwarted will.  And then, "Come, follow me" (Matt. 19:21).  Come to union with most blessed stillness and I will teach you the workings and behavior of the spiritual powers.  They never grow tired of their everlasting praise of their Maker, nor does he who has entered into the heaven of stillness cease to praise his Creator.  Spirits have no thought for what is material, and those who have become immaterial in a material body will pay no attention to food, for the former know nothing of it and the latter need no promise of it; the former are unconcerned about money and chattels and the latter are heedless of the malice of evil spirits.  In those dwelling above, there is no yearning for the visible creation, while those on earth below have no longing for what can be sensed, because the former never cease to make progress in love and the latter will never cease to imitate them.  The former know well the value of their progress; the latter understand their own love and longing for the ascent to heaven.  The former will desist only when they rise to the realm of the Seraphim; the latter will grow tired only when they come at last to be angels.

30-45            St. John then describes the differences between the various kinds of stillness.  He depicts how the virtue is practiced rightly or wrongly by those living the solitary life and those living the common life. 

            The man who is foul-tempered and conceited, hypocritical and a nurse of grievances, ought never to enter the life of solitude, for fear he should gain nothing but the loss of his sanity.  Someone free of these faults will know what is best.  Or perhaps, I think, not even he.
            The following are the signs, the stages, and the proofs of practicing stillness in the right way - a calm mind, a purified disposition, rapture in the Lord, the remembrance of everlasting torments, the imminence of death, an insatiable urge for prayer, constant watchfulness, the death of lust, no sense of attachment, death of worldliness, an end to gluttony, a foundation for theology, a well of discernment, a truce accompanied by tears, and end to talkativeness, and many other such things alien to most men.
            The following are signs of stillness practiced wrongly - poverty of spiritual treasures, anger on the increase, a growth of resentment, love diminished, a surge of vanity.

            With regard to those who lawfully, chastely, and in pure fashion are wedded to this orderly and admirable way of obedience, there are manifestations - validated by the divinely inspired Fathers and brought to perfection in their own time - manifestations accompanied by daily increase and progress.  There is an advance in basic humility.  There is lessening of bad temper, which must after all diminish as the gall is depleted.  Darkness is scattered and love approached.  Lust, under ceaseless criticism, diminishes; despondency is unknown; and zeal grows.  There is compassionate love and a banishment of pride.  This is what everyone must seek, though few will be completely successful.

            A young wife who strays from her marriage defiles her body.  A soul unfaithful to his vow defiles his spirit.  The former is denounced, hated, beaten, and, most pitiable of all, thrown out.  For the latter there is pollution, forgetfulness of death, an insatiable belly, eyes out of control, vainglory at work, a longing for sleep, a calloused heart, insensitivity, a storing up of bad thoughts, an increase of consent, captivity of heart, spiritual upheaval, disobedience, argumentativeness, attachment to things, unbelief, doubt, talkativeness, and - most serious this - free and easy relationships.  Most wretched of all is a heart without compunction, which, in the careless, is succeeded by insensitivity, the mother of devils and of lapses.

43-87            St. John then begins to describe the struggle for stillness.  First, St. John details those things that threaten to destroy or prevent one from obtaining an inner state of peace.  He identifies in particular the five demons that attack the solitary (despondence, vainglory, pride, dejection and anger) and the three that assail those living in community (gluttony, lust, and avarice).  Second, St. John identifies the essential virtues of the hesychast (unceasing prayer, discretion, faith, fear of God, patience, prudence and a discerning spirit).  He concludes by exhorting his readers to use every means to protect and strengthen the gift.

            Of the eight evil spirits, five attack the solitary and three assail those living in obedience.

            The spirit of despondency is your companion.  Watch him every hour.  Note his stirrings and his movements, his inclinations and his changes of face.  Note their character and the direction they take.

            The first task of stillness is disengagement from every affair good and bad, since concern with the former leads on to the latter.  Second is urgent prayer.  Third is inviolable activity of the heart.  And just as you have to know the alphabet if you are to read books, so if you have missed out on the first task, you cannot enter upon the other two. 

            The demon of despondency, as I have discovered, opens the way for the demons of lust. . .  .  Fight hard against these demons and they in turn will furiously attack you.  They will try to force you to desist from your labors, which, they will tell you, are of no value.

            A small hair disturbs the eye.  A minor concern interferes with stillness, for, after all, stillness means the expulsion of thoughts and the rejection of even reasonable cares.

            The man who wishes to offer a pure mind to God but who is troubled by cares is like a man who expects to walk quickly even though his legs are tied together.

            A man without experience of God ought not to undertake the solitary life.  He leaves himself open to many hazards.  Stillness chokes the inexperienced.  Never having tasted the sweetness of God, such people waste time being set upon, robbed, made despondent, distracted.

            It is better to live poor and obedient than to be a solitary who has no control over his thoughts.

            Stillness is worshipping God unceasingly and waiting upon Him. 
            Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath.  Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.
            Self-will is the ruin of the monk living in obedience.  But ruin for the solitary is the interruption of prayer.

            . . . the model for your prayer should be the widow wronged by her adversary (Luke 18:1-8) . . .            
            Faith is the wing of prayer, and without it my prayer will return to my bosom.  Faith is the unshaken stance of the soul and is unmoved by any adversity.  The believing man is not one who thinks that God can do all things, but one who trust that he will obtain everything.  Faith is the agent of things unhoped for, as the thief proved (Luke 23:42-43).  The mother of faith is hard work and an upright heart; the one builds up belief, the other makes it endure.  Faith is the mother of the hesychast, for after all, how can he practice stillness if he does not believe?
            A man chained in prison is fearful of his judge, and the monk in his cell is fearful of God.  But the court holds less terror for the one than the judgment seat of God for the other.  My good friend, you have to be very much afraid if you are to practice stillness, and nothing else is quite so effective in scattering despondency.  The prisoner is always on the watch for the judge to come to the jail, and the true worker is ever on the watch for the coming of death.  A weight of sorrow bears down on the one, while for the other there is a fountain of tears.
            Take hold of the walking stick of patience, and the dogs will soon stop their impudent harassment.  Patience is a labor that does not crush the soul.  It never wavers under interruptions, good or bad.  The patient monk is a faultless worker who has turned his faults into victories.  Patience sets a boundary to the daily onslaught of suffering.  It makes no excuses and ignores the self.  The worker needs patience more than food, since the one brings him a crown while the other brings destruction.  The patient man has died before his death, his cell being his tomb.  Patience comes from hope and mourning, and indeed to lack those is to be a slave to despondency. 

            Pay careful attention to whatever sweetness there may be in your soul, in case it has been concocted by cruel and crafty physicians.

            . . . until you have acquired spiritual power, do not read works that have various levels of meaning since, being obscure, they may bring darkness over the weak.

            Let the soul's eye be ever on the watch for conceit, since nothing else can produce such havoc.
            Once outside your cell, watch your tongue, for the fruits of many labors can be scattered in a moment.
            Stay away from what does not concern you, for curiosity can defile stillness as nothing else can. 
            When people visit you, offer them what they need for body and spirit.  If they happen to be wiser than we are, then let our own silence reveal our wisdom.  If they are brothers who share with us the same type of life, we should open the door of speech to them in proper measure.  Best of all, however, is to deem everyone our superior.

            Wealth and numerous subjects constitute the power of a king.  Abundance of prayer constitutes the power of the hesychast.