Denying the Self

Throughout our life, we go through many changes, experiences many ups and downs. Today we are children of the light (cf. Jn 12:36), but tomorrow we are filled with doubts and wonder: ‘Who is God? Where is God? God has forgotten me.’ This happens because the ego has placed itself in opposition to God, has made a god of itself, and it is impossible for the two to coexist. The presence of one requires the absence of the other. It’s as if two mighty gods, the God of my salvation and the god I have made out of myself, have come into conflict. If the ego wins, I will experience psychological isolation, which will include isolation from those around me, along with feelings of bitterness and sorrow. These feelings are the proof that the ego has rejected the God of salvation. The ‘ego’ – taken to include body, soul and spirit – has sent God into exile. Before this happens I am locked in a struggle with God, and woe to me if I should win.

…If, however, I am victorious; if I decide to put my ego to death, then the King of Glory will rise from the dead (Ps 23:7), the Lord of my salvation (Ps. 87:1; Is 38:20) for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 16:24). The darkness of my isolation will be dispersed by the light of God, and He Himself will be my companion; He will grant me genuine spiritual life, which is something greater than my life, for it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). I shall discover that Christ lives in me. His experiences shall become mine. This is the goal of my struggling; this is why I wrestle with God. And it is not just my struggle, but the struggle of every soul, and of the Church as a whole.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 218-219, 219-220).

In the Canon of Repentance of St Andrew of Crete we contemplate the following words which mark the same struggle between ego and God:

I have become an idol to myself, utterly defiling my soul with the passions, O compassionate Lord.  But accept me in repentance and allow me to behold your presence.  May the Enemy never possess me; may I never fall prey to him.  O Savior, have mercy on me.

Fasting to Weaken the Passions

[To a sick monk]: Concerning fasting, do not grieve, as I have said to you before: God does not demand of anyone labors beyond his strength. And indeed, what is fasting if not a punishment of the body in order to humble a healthy body and make it infirm for passions, according to the word of the Apostle: “When I am weak, then am I strong” (II Cor. 12:10). And disease, more than this, is a punishment and takes the place of fasting and even more – for one who bears it with patience, thanks God, and through patience receives the fruit of his salvation; for instead of weakening his body by fasting, he is already sick without that. Give thanks to God that you have been delivered from the labor of fasting.

Even if you will eat ten times in a day, do not grieve; you will not be judged for this, for you are doing this not at the demon’s instigation, and not from the weakening of your thought; but rather, this occurs to us for our testing and for profit to the soul. (Sts Barsanuphius and John, Guidance Toward Spiritual Life, p. 62).

A Fast Start

Let us begin the all-holy season of fasting with joy; Let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God:  with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, the strength of  good courage and the purity of holiness!  So, clothed in garments of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines on the world with the glory of eternal life!

This is the first day of the Fast.  For you, soul, let it be the setting aside of sin, the return to God; to life with Him.  Flee from the abyss of evil.  Love only those ways which lead to peace, resting before and within God.

Let us present a good fast, well-pleasing to the Lord!  A true fast is alienation from the Evil One;  The holding of one’s tongue, the laying aside of all anger,  the removal of all sensuality, of accusation, falsehood and sins of swearing.  The weakening of these will make the fast true and well-pleasing.

The hymns above are all from the beginning of Great Lent.  They remind us the fast is not just about changing diet or even mostly about food abstinence.  The hymns make it clear there are many things that are needed for a good fast;  joy, love, prayer. courage, holiness, light, peace, fleeing evil, being silent, controlling anger and swearing, ignoring sexual desire, not lying, not accusing others.  If one only controls one’s food appetite, one misses much of what Great Lent offers us.

Great Lent: Journeying into the Desert of our Heart

Image 1This is the second and concluding post based upon my reading of  John McGuckin’s “The Christian Sense of the Desert” in his book Illumined by the Spirit,   The first post is Great Lent: Journeying into the Heart of the Desert.  The Egyptians understood the desert to be the haunt of demons, especially the evil god Set who brought chaos and destruction to all.  They had a great civilization built right up to the border of the desert, but they needed to keep the desert at bey for when the desert moves into the farms and settlements, destruction follows – famine and the towns and farms succumb and become wastelands.

And yet, God called Israel into the desert so that they might see His glory and His face.  Christians in turn have seen the desert as “the zone of pilgrimage to the promised land” in McGuckin’s words.  We have treated Great lent as that desert zone of pilgrimage which we all can enter so that we can move toward the Kingdom of God.  As the Prophet Hosea (2:14) said God allures Israel and us into the desert, not out of it.  The desert is a temporary place for us, but an essential part of the sojourn.  It is like a bridge we need to get from one place to another.  Nobody lives on the bridge but the bridge is essential to all of our lives.

Great Lent as the desert brings us face to face with our own demons.  We fast a little and become irritable.  Our desires increase, we dismiss self-denial as legalistic.  We crave what we want and can see no connection between our lives, our desires, what we indulgence and the Lord God.  We come to act as if God was not Lord of the desert – of Great Lent and of my hungering heart – that God is only Lord of my prosperity, of my self-indulgence, of my abundance, of my over consumption.  We imagine if we are experiencing the slightest need, then God isn’t there.  We act as if God isn’t Lord over everything when we imagine God is only present in times of abundance but not in times of abstinence, self-denial and endurance.  And yet the Church’s history and experience is that fasting and self-denial bring us closer to God.  The full belly doesn’t cause us to thank God, but to forget God and be contented with the world.

Israel in the Old Testament is not leaving slavery in Egypt for a vacation in a warm climate.  They are not even guaranteed a better life by leaving the grand civilization of Egypt for desert wasteland – there isn’t even water in the desert, let alone farms and orchards.  They may be slaves in Egypt but they are alive, while the desert means death.   They know they are heading into hostile territory, into Set’s domain.  Though they have witnessed the destruction of Egypt, they understand they are walking into certain death in the desert.  It was there they also would see the glory of the Lord (Exodus 16:7, 10) – strangely, the two go together – facing death and seeing God.  In the desert they were totally dependent on the Lord, for the wilderness has little or nothing to give them.

The mystery and the miracle of the desert is that it reveals both the glory of the Lord and also Israel’s own heart.  It reveals God’s heart for Israel and where Israel’s heart is.  Where your treasure is there will your heart be also (Luke 12:34).  As McGuckin writes:

“The desert’s evil, nevertheless, comes out in the manner in which the account of Israel’s wandering stresses the regular failures of the people of Israel to live up to the covenant demands.

The divine call to the desert first comes from God to Israel.  They are to withdraw from the fleshpots of Egypt and find themselves once more as the covenant people by sacrificing to their God in the wilderness:

You and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, we pray you, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ (Exodus 3:18)

The desert is the place where the glory of the Lord, the Shekinah, appears to his chosen people:

And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.   (Exodus 16:10)

The wilderness is the place where God himself cares for his needy people:

I have led you forty years in the wilderness; yet your clothes have not worn out upon you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink; that you may know that I am the LORD your God.    (Deuteronomy 29:5-6)

And he provides them with manna from heaven: a symbol of provident care that comes once again to the fore in the Christian narratives of eucharistic spirituality (John 6:30-35). …

In the Deuteronomic re-expression of the covenant theology, the wilderness is thus abstracted as God’s time of watching for the veracity of Israel’s faithfulness:

And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not.  (Deuteronomy 8:2)

Isaiah elevates the desert symbol as a sign of covenant renewal – when the wilderness shall flow with water again (as once it did from the rock); and this became a sign of hope that was specifically used by Jesus himself to describe the days of divine visitation as refreshment and new life:

Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not err therein.  (Isaiah 35:4-8)” (pp 126-128)

Great Lent can be the time and place where we learn to live by the Word of God.  We learn that we do experience hunger and want and need and yet God is the Lord even in these times.  We depend on God and God gets us through the desert by being with us.  The small inconveniences we experience as Lent, the hunger, the want, the need, all become transformed into our experience of God.  We learn to hunger and thirst for God, we learn how to say no to sin and sinful desire.

Great Lent as desert is also when and where we are enabled to see God’s glory and to enter into it.  For in the “desert” we are not distracted by the things of this world – the gadgets, the gourmet, the grand, the gawdy – and so we can see the glory of God.

“…the desert remains in Israelite thought and experience a place where sin and evil are strong.” (p 128)

The desert it turns out to be the gateway to Paradise and the desert and the door to Paradise are both found in our hearts, which is why Great Lent is a sojourn through the heart of the desert and the desert of the heart.

Jesus says: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.   (2 Corinthians 4:6)

 

Great Lent: Journeying into the Heart of the Desert

Image 1When I read John McGuckin’s chapter, “The Christian Sense of the Desert,” in his book Illumined by the Spirit, I immediately saw its connection to Great Lent and also how the desert experience is a description of Great Lent.  It helps contextualize what we are called to experience in our Lenten sojourn.   We come to realize one way to understand the fasting, abstinence and self-denial – it is our own spiritual walk into the desert, related to what Israel undertook when God called Israel out of Egypt and into the desert where they would see God’s face and glory as well as look into the face of death.

The article begins with a poem by Edward Dorn:

’The first law of the desert

to which animal life of every kind

pays allegiance

is endurance and abstinence.’

Endurance and abstinence – two very apt descriptions for what we experience on our Lenten sojourn.  Even if we only keep Great Lent minimally, we do experience its length and have to endure.  And if we keep any kind of fasting – whether from food, entertainment, sex, the internet – we are practicing abstinence from some things.  We come to realize that Great Lent takes us out into the desert and says, “your survival is dependent on your willingness to deny yourself.”  If you feel you have to indulge yourself, you won’t survive in the desert.  As modern people we may abandon the desert, the fast, but in doing that we learn how much we really love the world rather than God.  We find that we don’t even want to rely on God or to live on the Word of God, we really want to have the things of the world that we crave rather than the Creator of this world.  And we see this in the smallest of things – a piece of cheese, a hamburger, a little downtime in front of the TV or the computer.  “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life —is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

McGuckin goes on to write:

“The ancient world generally saw the desert as a cursed place.  Its barrenness, its stark and unremitting hostility to all life forms, especially human, was a primal symbol of the fearsome anger and power of God who seemed to have withdrawn the vitality of life from such a place even as he had withdrawn water, that deep symbol of the graciousness of the Holy Spirit.  Christians, reflecting on the Scriptures, saw the desert in a symbolically different way as the quintessential zone of pilgrimage to the promised land, and gave it a new significance: comparable to the reference to the wilderness in the prophet Hosea, who called to the Israelites of his time to return to the Lord God with love and zeal, citing the desert years of wandering as a time when Israel still felt like a lover in the presence of God, before faithlessness and tedium had turned the marital relationship sour.

Hosea’s text, though not often cited explicitly in the early Church, in many ways sums up the special Christian sensibility of what would develop as  ‘desert spirituality’ – characterized by an energy of repentance, a turning back (Heb: shub, Gk: metanoia), a return to simplicity which casts off distractions, in order to rediscover the heart of one’s relationship with God.  Hosea puts this call to repentance into the mouth of God himself musing about his love affair with Israel and his plans to revive it:

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’ (Hosea 2:14-16)

This movement towards the desert not so much as a holy place, but more as the symbol of a return to a holy state, especially took hold among Christians…” (pp 123-124)

The desert – that place where you have to practice self-denial, abstinence and endurance just to survive – became for us a symbol of the sojourn to the Kingdom.  However hard it may be, the journey is a blessed one because it does bring us to our destination – to Paradise, to the Kingdom of Heaven.  And as God called Israel to the desert out of slavery to the great civilization of Egypt, so God calls us to Great Lent out of the civilized world, to that spiritual desert where we are not distracted by all the alluring things of the world and can concentrate on seeing God.  In the desert we realize the need for God’s love and presence, we realize our survival depends upon God.  We embrace the God of love, we pry ourselves away from the things that God has made so that we can fully embrace the Giver of the gifts.  The absence of creaturely comforts reminds us there is a Creator of comforts and this God is far more important to us than all the things of the world.  In going to the spiritual desert we acknowledge that we really can live without all of the luxuries of life in the civilized world.

Great Lent like the desert is “the quintessential zone of pilgrimage to the promised land.”  The foods we eat during Great Lent remind us we are on a sojourn, and this world is a desert.  The Israelites did not have wine in the desert because they had no time or place to establish vineyards.  They were on the move, as we should be in our Lenten sojourn.  They had no olive oil because they had no groves of olive trees in the desert and no means to press the olives to extract the oil.  Wine and oil require the luxury of permanence, of being able to cultivate vineyards and orchards and of being able to process the produce from grapes to wine and from olives to oil.   The fast is a harsh reminder of our reality – we are sojourners on earth.  Yet, we come to realize how much we really love the things of this earth – meat, dairy, wine and oil – which we might desire more than we desire God the Giver of every good gift.  Denying ourselves these things is to remind us we should desire God even more than we desire the blessings of His earth.  We fast in order to experience the desire for these things so that we can then cultivate a desire for God even more than the things of the world that we so love.  Fasting isn’t done because the things of the world are evil, but rather because we become addicted to them, treating them as our gods, acting as if we can’t live without them.  Great Lent calls us to live for a time period on the Word of God.

Our own sojourn during Great Lent was foreshadowed by Israel’s sojourn through the desert after their escape from slavery in Egypt.  Their own willingness to leave Egypt and head into the desert was done in the context of knowing that the desert was not a friendly, welcoming, nurturing place.  The Israelites moved into the desert having learned from the Egyptians that the desert was the barren and lifeless wilderness controlled by the god Set.  Set is one of the gods of Egypt, an evil one, brother to the god Osiris.

“Egypt is in many ways a seminal matrix for the desert experience.  The desert of the Israelites is, of course, this desert, and the ways Egypt regarded it have some continuance in Israelite attitudes…    Set, Osiris’ brother, is a force of disorder.  He thus represents evil and hostility to humankind.  …  the evil Set, who is finally ousted from his sterile seizure of power, and exiled to the desert lands… Set, however, remains as a constant threat of disorder, destruction, and death; always prowling in the desert lands, never far away from the centers of civilized life which struggle to retain their fragile dominion over human existence.  If an ancient went out into the desert he or she would risk the fearful encounter with daimones, the mid-level spiritual forces, sublunary deities, which the ancient world saw as ubiquitous powers.  But in the desert these forces were habitually hostile and destructive: hungry servants of Set. … Set’s rule commenced when arid barrenness began and either killed all living things, or made them wild, murderously savage.

This notion of the fearfulness of the wilderness places forms an important backdrop to the classical appearance of the desert in Israel’s account of the escape from Egypt.”  (p 125-126)

Israel walked out of civilized Egypt into Set’s desert.  This helps us understand why Pharaoh was incredulous when Aaron and Moses requested permission from him to travel into the desert to worship their God.  But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go. (Exodus 5:2)   Pharaoh knew the desert to be Set’s haunting place, why his slaves would want to leave civilization to honor an evil god was beyond his understanding.  What Moses brings into Egypt in the plagues, Pharaoh will understand to be the destructive powers of Set.  In the end Pharaoh expels the Israelites from Egypt realizing some divine power is present that he does not understand.  Pharaoh sees himself as a god of the civilized world, but his kingdom is in chaos when in the presence of the God of Israel.  Pharaoh never understood the Lord God as anything more than some manifestation of Set.  And for the Israelites, the Lord God led them right into the haunts of Set, but in that very place the Egyptians did not want to go, God promised to reveal Himself.

Next: Great Lent: Journeying into the Desert of Our Heart

 

The Nativity Fast: Why Humility is Essential

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Orthodox asceticism always presents us with a serious challenge to our tendency to oversimplify religion.  On the one hand, it seems to argue for nothing except absolute obedience to rules as THE way to follow Christ.  On the other hand, it reveals that strict obedience not only is a vacuity but is spiritually dangerous for it deceives us about its purpose.  As we continue on the spiritual sojourn of the Nativity Fast, we can think about the purpose of fasting and self-denial.

The same amma also said “it is neither spiritual discipline nor vigil nor diverse toil  that saves us if there be not genuine humble-mindedness. For there was a solitary driving off demons and he used to examine them:

‘What makes you come out? Is it fasting?’

They would say: ‘We neither eat nor drink.’ ‘

Vigil?’ he would say –

and they: ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘

Withdrawal from the world?’

And they would say: ‘We exist in the deserts.’

‘What then makes you come out?’

and they would say: ‘Nothing conquerors us other than humble-mindedness.’ Do you see that humble mindedness is victorious against demons?” (Amma Theodora, Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 129)

St Mary of Egypt

The spiritual victory over the demons does not occur in the desert, or in monasteries but in the humble of heart.   As the demons honestly (!) answer – just like monks, they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, and they don’t live in luxurious cities with every cosmopolitan amenity [so those who think the city is the playground for demons might be surprised to learn the demons don’t live in the cities but in the deserts!].  It isn’t strict ascetical practice which defeats demons, but humility.

If asceticism simply means being obedient to rules of self-denial, then monks are simply behaving like demons.  The real warfare for monks as for all Christians is to nurture and develop humility – a humble heart.   For the demons neither have humility nor can they abide in the humble heart for that humble heart is the abode of God!

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  (Isaiah 57:15)

Lent, especially Christmas Lent, cannot be reduced to keeping strict rules of food fasting.  For its goal is to prepare the humble heart in which the Lord Jesus can come and abide.  What cleanses our heart is humility, which is the goal not only of Lent and asceticism but of the sacrament of confession as well.

“Every genuine  confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.

Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”   (St. Maximos the Confessor THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

To Know God, Be Self-Aware

“Authentic asceticism used practices that deepened self-awareness. The desert ascetic understood that growth in self-awareness was a necessary and valued component of the spiritual journey. Self-awareness was pursued through ascetical practices in order to become more deeply united with God and closer to heaven.

St Mary of Egypt

As the ammas [the desert mothers] taught, inner hesitancy and resistance to meet God in honesty, silence, and solitude are related to our resistance to come to know ourselves in our frailties. An honest encounter with God challenges our capacity for intimacy. We may come to discover that we fear our passion for God. We may want to run from our sense of emptiness. Self-awareness calls us to face our hurt and anger. Above all else, self-awareness reveals our idols – those self-serving, false images of God that deny who God actually is.

…Apatheia is purity of heart. The ammas teach us to intentionally let go of all that keeps us from the single-minded pursuit of God: feelings and thoughts that bind us, cravings and additions that diminish our sense of worth, and attachments to self-imposed perfectionism.”

(Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, p. 24 & 26)

The Marriage Crown

Before the final blessing of the marriage, the priest prays that God will “take up their crowns.” This image is an encouragement for married couples to live in holiness and follow the ways of the martyrs and married saints to salvation. Salvation is a gift that is tried by many obstacles and temptations; yet, it is expressed as joyful life in the presence of God in his kingdom. This joy is not as fleeting or simple as temporary “happiness.” Rather, it contains within itself the fruits of labor and assists in the development of the unquenchable desire to serve the other in accordance with one’s natural inclination as a communal being.

Then secondly, the glory and the honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the kingdom is the martyria–bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. (Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

Crowns become the reward for and sign of carrying the cross. Before marriage a specific cross is given to the individual, but now a new cross is given to the two united as one. This new cross requires cohesive work with the other in a way that is unique to the individual and is bearable only in services to Christ, through the spouse, by the Holy Spirit and in concordance with the Father. In this sacrificial love, martyrdom is made manifest. Again, in the words of Fr. Schmemann,

In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not ‘happiness’!] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.

(Bp. John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 57-58)

Christian Asceticism

The tradition of our Fathers and the authority of Scripture teaches us that there are three kinds of renouncements which each of us must work to carry out with all his strength. The first is to reject all the pleasures and all the riches of this world. This second is to renounce ourselves, our vices, our wicked habits, and all the unruly affections of the spirit and of the flesh; and the third is to withdraw our heart from all things present and visible and apply it only to the eternal and invisible. God teaches us to make these three renounements all at once by what He said to Abraham first of all. “Go out!” he told him, “from your country, from your kindred, from the house of your father; that is, leave the goods of this world and all the riches of the earth. Go out from your ordinary life and from the wicked and vicious inclinations which, attaching themselves to us by our birth and the corruption of flesh and blood, are as it were naturalized and become one thing with ourselves. Go out from the house of your father, that is, lose the memory of all the things of this world and of everything that presents itself to your eyes…”

We shall then arrive at this third renouncement when our spirit, no longer weighed down by the contagion of this animal and earthly body, but purified from the affections of the earth, is raised to heaven by continual meditation on divine things, and is so taken up with the contemplation of the eternal truth that it forgets that it is still enclosed in fragile flesh and, ravished in God, it will find itself so absorbed in His presence that it has no longer ears to hear or eyes to see and it cannot even be struck by the greatest and most perceptible objects.” 

(St. John Cassian, in Louis Bouyer’s The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, p. 327)

Fasting: To Cleanse the Heart

“I beg and entreat that each one of you reckon up in his conscience the results of his fasting. If he discovers that he has gained much, let him reckon it to his hard work; but if he has gained nothing, let him use the remaining time to gain goods through diligent fasting. As long as the festival lasts, let us not leave before we have exerted ourselves and acquired great gain, so we will not leave with empty hands. In this way we shall not forsake the reward of fasting, since we have endured the toil of fasting. For it is possible to endure even the toil of fasting and not receive the reward of fasting. How? When we abstain from food but do not abstain from sins; when we do not eat meat but devour the homes of the poor; when we do not get drunk from wine but become intoxicated by wicked desire; when we continue without food for the entire day but pass all of it a wonton spectacles. Recognize that we can endure the toil of fasting but not receive the recompense of fasting, when we attend the theaters of lawlessness.

What does the divine law say? “You have heard that God said to the ancients, ‘You shall not commit adultery!’ But I say to you that everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Have you seen an adulterer perform? Have you seen a sin fulfilled? And worse yet, the adulterer who is not convicted and condemned by a human court for his adultery is held accountable by the divine tribunal, whose retributions are eternal. Everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Fasting eradicates not only the disease but also the root of the disease, and the root of adultery is wonton desire. For this reason, Scripture punishes not only the adultery but also the desire, the mother of adultery.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 70 & 73)