According to St. John, as we pursue the heavenly goal we need to be aware of the great danger of becoming desensitized to the importance of spiritual realities. What he describes should be familiar to all. When we are first awakened to the spiritual life and introduced to its depths, we are awestruck and experience a godly fear. Yet, familiarity often breeds contempt or at least invites one to have a casual attitude.
Insensitivity develops when we allow a division to exist between our words and our actions. It is brought on by a lengthy illness which prevents a person from engaging in spiritual disciplines, carelessness and prolonged negligence. In many ways it is hypocrisy at its worst and most pathetic. We speak to others about certain spiritual practices and their importance and yet rarely embrace themselves for ourselves. We remain unmoved and untouched by our own words and exhortations. Even the reality of death and the judgement of God provoke no response.
To understand such a vice and overcome it, John tells us, we must deliberately take hold of it and scourge it with unceasing prayer and the fear of God. The source of this vice is not the same for all, and so greater effort is required from us to expose its causes and defeat them.
1 John begins by defining insensitivity and its dominant qualities.
Insensitivity is deadened feeling in body and spirit, and comes from long sickness and carelessness. Lack of awareness is negligence that has become habit. It is thought gone numb, an offspring of predisposition, the gateway to despair, the mother of forgetfulness giving birth to loss of fear of God and, in turn, to a deadened spirit . . . .
2 The insensitive man is one who does not live as he speaks and teaches. He remains unaffected by his own words and exhortations.
The insensitive man is a foolish philosopher, an exegete condemned by his own words, a scholar who contradicts himself, a blind man teaching sight to others. He talks about healing a wound and does not stop making it worse. He complains about what has happened and does not stop eating what is harmful. He prays against it but carries on as before, doing it and being angry with himself. And the wretched man is in no way shamed by his own words. "I'm doing wrong", he cries, and zealously continues to do so. His lips pray against it and his body struggles for it. He talks profoundly about death and acts as if he will never die. He groans over the separation of soul and body, and yet lives in a state of somnolence as if he were eternal. He has plenty to say about self-control and fights for a gourmet life. He reads about the judgment and begins to smile, about vainglory and is vainglorious while he is reading. He recites what he has learnt about keeping vigil, and at once drops off to sleep. Prayer he extols, and runs from it as if from a plague. Blessing he showers on obedience, and is the first to disobey. Detachment he praises, and he shamelessly fights over a rag. When he is angry he gets bitter, and then his bitterness makes him angry, so that having suffered one defeat he fails to notice that he has suffered another. He gorges himself, is sorry, and a little later is at it again. He blesses silence and cannot stop talking about it. He teaches meekness and frequently gets angry while teaching it. Having come to his senses, he sighs and shaking his head embraces his passion once more. He denounces laughter, and while lecturing on mourning he is all smiles. In front of others he criticizes himself for being vainglorious, and in making the admission he is looking for glory. He looks people in the eye with passion and talks about chastity. Out in the world he is full of praise for the solitary life and cannot see how much he is disgracing himself. He glorifies almsgivers and despises the poor. In everything he shows himself up for what he is, and does not come to his senses, though I would not say he was incapable of doing so.
3 Such a man remains unmoved even by the harshest and most fearful of realities - death and judgement.
I have seen such men weep as they hear of death and the dread judgment, and with the tears still in their eyes they rush off to dinner. And it amazed me to see how this stinking tyrant by means of complete insensitivity could even manage to overpower mourning.
4 Fear of God and endless prayer alone gain the upper hand in the battle with this vice.
I have described, as much as my poor talents permit, the wiles and the havoc wrought by this stony, stubborn, raging, ignorant passion, and I refuse to dwell on it. If there is anyone with the God-given skill to heal the sores, let him not shrink from the task. I am not ashamed to admit that my powers fail here, for I am very sorely tried by this vice and I would not have been able alone to analyze its wily ways if I had not laid hold of it, gripping it hard, examining it to discover what has been described above, scourging it with fear of the Lord and endless prayer. That is why this tyrannical evildoer said this to me: "Those who are under my sway laugh when they see the bodies of the dead. At prayer they are stony, hard, and blinded. In front of the altar they feel nothing. They receive the Holy Gift as if it were ordinary bread. And I laugh at people when I see them stirred by compunction. My father taught me to kill everything born of courage and love. I am the mother of Laughter, the nurse of Sleep, the friend of the Full Stomach. When I am found out I do not grieve, and I am the ally of Fake Piety."
5 Parents and Offspring.
Amazed by the words of this demented fury, I asked, in my astonishment, for the name of her father. "I was not born of just one parent," she said. "I am of mixed and uncertain origin. Big meals keep me going, time adds to my stature and bad habit fixes me in such a way that he who possesses me will never be rid of me. But if you are always on the watch and think of eternal judgment, maybe I shall let go of you to some extent. If you discover why I came to be within you, it will be possible for you to do battle with my mother, since she is not the same for all. Pray often where the dead are laid out and paint in your heart an indelible image of them, traced there with the brush of fasting. For otherwise you will never defeat me."