HE Must Increase, Not I

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (St. John the Forerunner speaking about Jesus, John 3:30)

“You say that you have no success. Indeed, there will be no success so long as you are full of self-indulgence and self-pity. These two things show at once that what is uppermost in your heart is “I” and not the Lord. It is the sin of self-love, living within us, that gives birth to all our sinfulness, making the whole man a sinner from head to food, so long as we allow it to dwell in the soul. And when the whole man is a sinner, how can grace come to him? It will not come, just as a bee will not come where there is smoke.

There are two elements in the decision to work for the Lord: First a man must deny himself, and secondly he must follow Christ (Mark 8:34). The first demands a complete stamping out of egoism or self-love, and consequently a refusal to allow any self-indulgence or self-pity–whether in great matters or small.”  (St. Theophan the Recluse, Heavenly Wisdom from God-illuminated Teachers on Conquering Depression, pp. 55-56)

Resisting Self-Indulgent Passions

The Triumph of Dionysus

Self-Indulgent: What is meant is the appetites of the self, an unhealthy individualism that serves evil and leads to idolatry (Gal. 5.9). When self-indulgence is at work the results are obvious:

fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility; idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels, disagreements, factions, envy, murders, drunkenness and similar things (Col. 3.5 adds evil desires and greed, spitefulness, abusive language, dirty talk and lies).

What the Spirit brings is the opposite of self-indulgent (Gal. 5.22). By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self control….

If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct its course. We must stop being conceited, provocative and envious (1 Cor. 2:21-3:3).”

(The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church annotated by Paul N. Harrilchak, p 58)

Imitating St. Mary of Egypt

One of the hymns regarding St. Mary of Egypt says that she taught us “To despise the flesh, for it passes away, and to care instead for the soul, since it is eternal.”

St. John of Kronstadt writes that we can fulfill this ideal –

“Prove this by your deeds; fast, gladly bestow charity upon the poor, entertain your guests heartily; do not grudge anything to those who belong to your household, zealously read the Word of God, pray, repent, lament your sins, strive with all your might after holiness, meekness, humility, patience, and obedience.” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp 175-176)

 

 

Spiritual Warfare: The Passions

Not infrequently in the writings of church teachers from the Patristic period, we find descriptions of how the passions and sins are related to each other, one becoming the seedbed for the next.  To rid oneself of sin, one has to find the root cause of the chain which moves us ever away from God.

There may be a ladder of divine ascent that leads us step by step to the kingdom, but there also is ladder that step by step takes us into the depths of sin.

Here is one description of cause and effect relationship of passions to sins, written by Oliver Clement.

“Pride and greed form an alliance in a sort of metaphysical usurpation that annexes the whole being to the ego.

Spiritual writers, especially Maximus the Confessor, speak here of philautia, self-love, self-centeredness, that snatches the world away from God to annex it, making neighbors into things. […]

Greed unleashes debauchery as an expression of sexuality. The two together, to satisfy themselves, breed avarice.

Avarice produces depression – grief at not possessing everything – and envy – of those who possess.

Thus arises anger, against anyone who threatens my goods, or who forestalls me in securing something that I covet.

Pride, in its turn, begets ‘vain glory’, the display of riches and temptations, followed by anger and depression when the sought-for admiration and approval is lacking.”

(The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp 134-135)

Contemplating Great Lent

“Armed with fasting, Elijah the wonderful, was taken up in a chariot of fire;

through fasting Moses received a vision of secret mysteries; and if we also fast like the, we shall see Christ.”  

“Adam ate the food and his greed banished him from Paradise.  But may the keeping of the Fast lead us to true repentance, O Lord who loves mankind.”

“Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord.  True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander falsehood and perjury.  If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.”

(Three hymns from the Lenten Triodion, 1st week)

 

Afflictions

“The ancient fathers counsel the faithful to view life’s reversals and afflictions as a whetstone to sharpen their minds, thereby keeping them active and making them wise. Saint John Chrysostom is even of the opinion that the presence of adversities has blessed humanity with the development of the arts. Full of realistic optimism based on observed experience, patristic tradition regards problems as opportunities that can make people resourceful and even strong.” (Father Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p 171)

Sinners and Sickness

“Desert spirituality understood that the inner journey was one of warfare. Any weapon might be used against the seeker.

Amma Syncletica was known for her profound gifts of the discernment of spirits. She had a keen perception of what was going on in someone’s inner struggles. Any situation can be used by the evil one to distract and confuse us, discourage us, and try to move us toward despair or apathy. Any situation can be an opportunity for learning and growth. For Amma Syncletica, a ‘sinner’ is one who allows circumstances to disrupt prayerful pursuit of God or who gives up the inner journey altogether. Detachment allows us the reflective space and inner freedom to recognize these attacks and learn from them. Keeping the eye of our soul upon our ultimate goal helps us to not get hooked by the turbulence of daily life.

The evil one attacks our sense of self-worth and feeds our internalized self-hatred. Discouragement and depression can move us toward despair and a loss of hope in God. When we live out of our wounded sense of self-worth, we tend not to trust the inner wisdom and intuition given each of us by God. She also said, ‘If illness weighs us down, let us not be sorrowful as though, because of the illness and the prostration of our bodies, we could not sing, for all these things are for our good, for the purification of our desires. Truly fasting and sleeping on the ground are set before us because of our sensuality. If illness then weakens this sensuality, the reason for these practices are superfluous. For this is the great asceticism: to control oneself in illness and to sing hymns of thanksgiving to God.’”  (Laura Swam, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, pp 48-49)

The Spiritual Miser

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey.

Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.

So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’

But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed.  So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest.  Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

St. Mother Maria Skobtsova (d. 1945) writes:

“Spiritual egocentrism replaces the goal of true asceticism. It cuts off such a person from the universe and makes him into a spiritual miser – and then this miserliness quickly begins to develop and grow, because he begins to notice that the more he acquires, the emptier his soul becomes. This occurs because of a strange law of the spiritual life, whereby everything that is not distributed, everything that is saved, everything that is not lovingly given away somehow degenerates, becomes corrupt, is consumed in flames.

The talent is taken away from the one who buries it and is given to the one who will lend it at interest. Further accumulation makes one more and more empty. It leads to dryness, to spiritual numbness, to the complete degeneration and destruction of one’s spiritual essence. A unique process of self-poisoning by spiritual values takes place.”

(Essential Writings, pp 172-173)

The Natural Goodness of Creation vs. Human Sin

In the 4th Century an Egyptian monk, Evagrius, became famous for writing about the ascetical life.  Unfortunately, his work was influenced by some non-Christian thinking, and in later centuries the Church rejected some of what he wrote as heresy.  Nevertheless, as a 4th Century Christian he had some profound insights into the spiritual life.  In his comments on Psalm 146:7, we see him following the common Christian practice of seeing beyond the literal reading of a text to find a meaning that applies to many, if not most, Christians.  The Psalmist may be referring to those incarcerated in prisons, but Evagrius recognized that many things can imprison the mind.

“‘The Lord sets the chained ones free’ (Psalm 146:7):

Neither things nor their mental conceptions [as such] chain the intellect, but, on the contrary, the passionate conceptions of things. For the Lord has also made gold, and he himself created woman, and nothing of what has come into existence through God is opposed to the salvation of man. On the contrary, it is lust and greed that chain the intellect, in that they force the mental conceptions to remain in the heart. Things hamper the intellect through passionate mental conceptions, just as [the thought of] water [hampers] the thirsty man through thirst and [the thought of] bread the hungry man through hunger. For this reason, the physician of souls neither destroys things (for he is their Creator) nor does he compel the intellect not to recognize them (for it was created by him for this reason, to recognize them). Rather, by destroying by means of spiritual teaching and the commandments the passions – which are something other than the mental representations and the things from which they have their own origin – he frees the intellect from the chains. This is indeed what the words of the Psalm mean:

The Lord sets the chained ones free.’”

(quoted in Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread by Gabriel Bunge, p 36)

It is not gold or pornography which enslaves us – for these are things external to us.  It is the lust within us that makes us a slave instead of a free human being.   It is sin in us.   We are to struggle against our own sins, lusts, temptations and desires in order to be fully, free human beings.  The Christian life is a spiritual war, against our own desires and passions.  We are aiming to purify our hearts and minds of these passions which are trying to enslave us.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, (Ephesians 6:10-18)

Gradually Spend the Day Pleasing God

The desert fathers left us a treasury of apothegms and aphorisms which were distilled from their own spiritual experiences.  They are precisely sayings which convey wisdom and warn against excessive zealotry.   They follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ who also was a giver of wisdom rather than law, who in fact is wisdom incarnate.  Wisdom is not law which tells us exactly what to do for it also encompasses how often, how much, to what degree, with whom, under what circumstances as well as when and where we are to carry out a particular behavior.

When we set off to form a prayer rule or any kind of spiritual discipline, we may want to keep in mind the words of St. John of Gaza (ca. 530) who said:

“Do not bind yourself with strict rules, but do whatever the Lord gives you the strength to do.  And do not neglect your reading and prayer; little by little, you will gradually spend the day pleasing God.  For our perfect fathers were not limited by any particular rule. Indeed, their daily rule included singing Psalms a little, repeating by heart a little, examining their thoughts a little, working for a living a little, and all this with fear of God.  For it is said: ‘Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.'”  (Georgi Parpulov in THE OLD TESTAMENT IN BYZANTIUM, p 78)

Moderation in all things is a good rule, as well as varying one’s discipline so that “little by little” you “gradually spend the day pleasing God.”   It isn’t done on the first day you try, nor all at once nor by trying to be the spiritual giant on day one.  We grow in the faith. We do as much as God has given us strength to do, not according to what strength He may have given others for them to do His will.   This is why one rule cannot serve all Christians – such a rule doesn’t serve us but becomes our master.   We gradually become with perseverance, patience and persistence the Christian we believe we are called to be.  We work out our salvation during the course of our life, not just in one day, even though each and every day is significant to our spiritual development.  The spiritual life is not a sprint but a marathon lasting a lifetime.  [Another bit of wisdom is God promises to forgive us on the day we repent, but He doesn’t promise us a tomorrow on which to repent!]

We also find in the advice of the monastics wisdom concerning how to handle various temptations and problems by turning to the Psalms.  This is wisdom that goes beyond just sticking to a regime of saying fixed Psalms at set times.   A 10th Century manuscript offers the following advice as to which Psalms to say for special needs:

“The Psalms said as prayers are the following:

Against despondent thoughts – Psalm 54, 53.

Against lewd thoughts – Psalm 34, 37.

Against rancorous thoughts – Psalm 30.

Against captive thoughts – Psalm 12, 16.

Against thoughts of forsakenness – Psalm 70, 72.

Against multitudinous thoughts – Psalm 68, 142.

Against thoughts of despair – Psalm 26.

Against blasphemous thoughts – Psalm 139.

Say the same Psalm also against any torment and difficulty.

In want of prayer – Psalm 24, 25.”  (Georgi Parpulov in THE OLD TESTAMENT IN BYZANTIUM, p 85, 88)