Philokalia

Philokalia

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.
           

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 26 On Discernment





            How many times do we struggle to know God's will for our lives.  As St. John notes: There are many roads to holiness - - and to Hell.  A path wrong for one will suit another, yet what each is doing is pleasing to God."  How are we to live our lives?  What are we to do?  In a moment of crisis, when a decision has to be made and to made quickly, what does God want us to do?  What will please Him?  What will bring us heavenly rewards?  Am I hearing the voice of God or the voice of self or worse still, the voice of Satan?  How do I know?  Anyone who is traveling the spiritual road knows in the depths of his being how agonizing these questions truly are.  In response to this feeling, St. John offers some practical advice from his own experience.

            First, he insists that "those who wish to discover the will of God must begin by mortifying their own will."  St. John recognizes that it is easy for us to say that we want to know God's will when, in fact, we really only want our will.  It is also easy for us to convince ourselves that what God wants is what we want, and then to imagine that our voice is the voice of God.  This deception (known as "prelest" in the spiritual tradition) leads us to hell.  Once we have confused our voice for God's, we are easy prey for the Devil.  Humility, the recognition that our will is confused and confusing, is the necessary prelude to knowing the will of God.  To keep us from playing games with ourselves and to insure that we are totally humble before God so that we can be guided by Him, St. John suggest that we make no decisions without the input and agreement of others.  Do nothing without a blessing!  This blessing may be obtained from one's confessor, superior, spiritual guide, the writings and examples of the saints and from our brothers and sisters in Christ.

            St. John also suggest that we discover the will of God through abandoning every attachment.  We human beings are impulsive; our desires are awakened and immediately we want to fulfill them.  Usually, if we say "No" to our immediate desires to do something, they fade away and are replaced by desire for other things.  If we detach ourselves from that which awakened our desires, they tend to go away.  This is especially true if we submit ourselves during this time to a strict regiment of prayer and fasting.  Human desires (even those Satanically inspired) cannot sustain themselves if they are detached from the object of their desire and if they are not fed by constant thought and imagination.  However, a call from God will grow stronger during a time of prayer and fasting.  The will of God is not dependent upon human impulses.  The more it is nurtured and fed with prayer and fasting the stronger it grows.  The more detached we are from those things which feed the flesh and its desires and the more attached we are to those things which feed our soul the more we are able to discern the will of God for our lives.

            Furthermore, St. John teaches that trials and difficulties are often reliable signposts in discerning the will of God.  We often start something which we think is of God and as soon as it gets difficult we grow discouraged and think that maybe we made a mistake and that maybe it really wasn't of God.  How different is the reasoning of St. John.  If we start something and experience tremendous troubles in the doing of it, then we probably are on the right track.  Satan will only oppose something that is good; the better and purer it is, the more Satan will try to stop us at every turn.

            Yet to know God's will is not easy; we often make mistakes.  This should keep us humble but it should not depress us.  For our encouragement, St. John writes: "God is not unjust.  He will not slam the door against the man who humbly knocks. . .  .And every act that is not the product of personal inclination or of impurity will be imputed to us for good, especially if it is done for the sake of God. . . . God judges us by our intentions, but because of His love for us He only demands from us such actions as lie within our power."


1-6            Discernment defined.

            Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway along the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is a knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others.  To put the matter generally, discernment is - - and is recognized to be - - a solid understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things; and its found only among those who are pure in heart, in body and in speech.

            Discernment is an uncorrupted conscience.  It is pure perception.

            Let our God-directed conscience be our aim and rule in everything so that, knowing how the wind is blowing, we may set our sails accordingly.

7-35            In these paragraphs St. John teaches us about various impediments to discerning the will of God - from the pitfalls that demons place in the way of our spiritual progress to the trials and distractions of physical illness.  He also speaks in particular of the need for discernment in those who are spiritual guides.

            Amid all our efforts to please God, three pitfalls lie, prepared for us by demons.  First is their attempt to impede any sort of worthwhile achievement; and if this fails, they strive secondly to ensure that what we do should not be in accordance with the will of God.  And if the scoundrels fail in this too, then they stand quietly before our soul and praise us for the fact that in every respect we are living as God would wish.  We should fight these risks, the first by zeal and fear of death, the second by obedience and self-abasement, the third by unceasing self-condemnation.  "This work is ahead of us until the fire of God shall enter our sanctuary" (Ps 72: 16-17), and then indeed the power of our predispositions will no longer constrain us.  For our God is a fire consuming all lusts, all stirrings of passion, all predispositions, and all hardness of heart, both within and without, both visible and spiritual.
            Demons, on the other hand, bring about the very opposite to all this.  Grabbing a soul, they put out the light of the mind until in our wretchedness we find ourselves lacking sobriety or discernment, self-knowledge or shame; and we are burdened instead with indifference, insensitivity, want of discernment, and blindness.
           
            We have to be particularly vigilant whenever the body is sick, for at such a time the demons, observing our weakness and our inability to fight against them as usual, rush in to attack us.  In times of illness the demon of anger and even of blasphemy may be discovered around those who live in the world.
           
            And I have noticed how the wolf of fornication increased the sufferings of the sick and, while they were laid low, cause stirring of the flesh . . .  . It was amazing to see how the body, for all its agonies, could still rage and lust.

            One man's medicine can be another man's poison, and something can be a medicine to the same man at one time and a poison at another.  So I have seen an incompetent physician who by inflicting dishonor on a sick but contrite man produced despair in him, and I have seen a skillful physician who cut through an arrogant heart with the knife of dishonor and thereby drained it of all its foul-smelling pus.  I have seen a sick man striving to cleanse his impurity by drinking the medicine of obedience, by moving, walking, and staying awake.  That same man when the eye of his soul was sick did not move, made no noise, and was silent.  Therefore, "he who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Luke 14:35).

36-106            St. John then begins to discuss what discernment allows us to see and how it must be used.   (a) Discernment, he states, helps us to understand the capital vices and their offspring.  It is the ability to see how certain actions and thoughts give rise to sin and teaches us how to avoid them.  (b) Discernment helps us to examine our motives honestly and allows us to see that virtues and vices are sometimes intermingled.  It even helps us to understand why certain prayers go unanswered by God.  (c) Furthermore, such a gift helps us to know and anticipate the ways of demons and teaches us how to respond to situations involving multiple evils.  (d) It leads us to scrutinize ourselves as a matter of course - thoroughly examining every virtue and vice.
(e) He who has received this gift can detect hidden vices in others as well as in himself.  He knows the seasons of the spiritual life, when the fruits of spiritual labors come, the movements of one's spirit and the different levels of sorrow and despair.  (f) He makes the will of God his rule of life.  (g) He knows which of the spiritual gifts are the most important and valuable.  (h) He neglects no fault, no matter how small, seeing that it may bring his downfall.   (i) A discerning man understands that sometimes we are vulnerable to certain sins simply because of body weaknesses.  (j) He understands that relationships must be properly understood if they are to remain undefiled and holy.  (k) He knows and desires to give what is best to God - the first fruits of his labors and his day.  (l) He chooses the path in life which best suits him - the path that leads to sanctity.  (m) Discernment helps him to see all things in their proper light.

(a)            . . . jokes at the wrong time can be the product of lust, or of vainglory when a man impiously pretends to be pious, or high living.  Excessive sleep can arise from luxury, from fasting when those who fast become proud of it, from despondency, or sometimes from nature.  Garrulity sometimes comes from gluttony, and sometimes from vainglory.  Despondency can derive now from high living, now from lack of fear of God.  Blasphemy is properly the child of pride but can often arise out of the readiness to condemn one's neighbor for the same offense, or it can be due to the untimely envy of demons.  Hardheartedness is sometimes the consequence of gluttony, frequently of insensitivity, and also of being grasping.  And to be grasping can be due to lust, avarice, gluttony, vainglory, and indeed to many other causes.  Malice comes from conceit and from anger, while hypocrisy comes from independence and self-direction.

(b)            I have watched farmers sowing the same type of seed, and yet each one had different ideas of what he was doing.  One was planning to pay off his debts.  Another was hoping to get rich.  Another wanted to be able to bring gifts to honor the Lord.  Another was hoping to earn praise for his work from the passers-by in life.  Someone else wanted to irritate a jealous neighbor, while there was yet another who did not want to be reproached by men for laziness.  And as for the seeds thrown into the earth, their names are fasting, keeping vigil, almsgiving, service, and suchlike.  So let our brethren in the Lord keep a careful eye on their motives.
            When we draw water from a well, it can happen that we inadvertently also bring up a frog.  When we acquire virtues we can sometimes find ourselves involved with the vices which are imperceptibly interwoven with them.  What I mean is this.  Gluttony can be caught up with hospitality; lust with love; cunning with discernment; malice with prudence; duplicity, procrastination, slovenliness, stubbornness, wilfulness, and disobedience with meekness; refusal to learn with silence; conceit with joy; laziness with hope; nasty condemnation with love again; despondency and indolence with tranquillity; sarcasm with chastity; familiarity with lowliness.  And behind all the virtues follows vainglory as a salve, or rather a poison, for everything.
            We must not become upset if for a while the Lord seems to allow our requests to go unheard.  Naturally the Lord would be delighted if in one moment all men became dispassionate.  But He knows, in His providence, that this would not be to their advantage.
            When requests are made to God and are not immediately answered, the reason may be one of the following; either that the petition is premature, or because it has been made unworthily or vaingloriously, or because, if granted, it would lead to conceit, or because negligence and carelessness would result.
(c)            Demons and passions quit the soul entirely or for some length of time.  No one can deny that.  However, the reasons for such a departure are known to very few.

            Demons leave us alone so as to make us careless, then pounce on our miserable souls.  And those beasts have another trick, of which I am aware; namely, to depart when the soul has become thoroughly imbued with the habits of evil, when it has turned into its own betrayer and enemy.  It is rather like what happens to infants weaned from the mother's breast, who suck their fingers because the habit has taken hold of them.

            When confronted by evils, we should choose the least.  For instance, we are standing at prayer and some brothers approach us.  We have to do one of two things, either to cease praying or to upset a brother by ignoring him.  Now love is greater than prayer, since the latter is a particular virtue while the former embraces all virtues.
            Long ago, in my young days, I came to a city or to a village, and while sitting at table I was afflicted at the same time by thoughts of gluttony and vainglory.  Knowing and fearing the outcome of gluttony, I decided to give into vainglory.  I also knew that in the young, the demon of gluttony often overcomes the demon of vainglory.  This is not to be wondered at, for among people of the world love of money is the root of all evil, whereas in monks it is gluttony.
            God in His providence often leaves some vestiges of passion in people of a very spiritual disposition.  He does so in order that, by their endless condemnation of what are very minor defects, they may obtain a wealth of humility that no one can plunder.

(d)            Regarding every vice and every virtue, we must unceasingly scrutinize ourselves to see what point we have reached, a beginning, a middle, or the end.
            Attacks by demons afflict us for three reasons: because we are sensual, because we are proud, or because the demons envy us.  The last is a ground for rejoicing, the middle for pity, and where the first is concerned, the prospect is lifelong failure.

(e)            Everyone with a healthy sense of smell can detect hidden perfumes, and a pure soul can quickly recognize in others the sheer fragrance of goodness that he himself has received from God. And indeed he can also recognize - as others cannot - the foul odor from which he himself has been liberated.

            Ecclesiastes declares that there is a time for everything under heave, and "everything" may be taken to refer to our spiritual life.  If this is so, then we ought to examine the matter; and we should do everything in proper season. . . There is a time for the sowing of labors and a time to reap the astounding fruits of grace; and if it were otherwise we would not receive in due time whatever was proper to the season.
            God in his unspeakable providence has arranged that some received the holy reward of their toils even before they set to work, others while actually working, others again when the work was done, and still others at the time of their death.  Let the reader ask himself which one of them was made more humble.
            There is a despair that results from the great number of one's sins.  It comes from a burdened conscience and intolerable grief, when the soul, engulfed by the mass and the burden of its wounds, slips into the deep waters of hopelessness.  But there is also another kind of sorrow.  It comes from pride and conceit and arises when a man thinks it unfair that he lapsed in some way.  Now there is a distinctive aspect to each of these conditions which the observant will discover.  The one man gives himself over to indifference, the other continues to practice his ascetic disciplines even though his despair persists in him, which is a contradiction.  Temperance and good hope can heal the first man; the other will be cured by humility and by the practice of judging no one.

(f)            Whatever you do, however you live, whether you live under obedience or whether you are independent, in which you do openly or in your spiritual life, let it be your rule and practice to ask if what you do is in accordance with the will of God.  When we novices, for instance, do something and the humility deriving from that action is not added to the possessions of our souls, then the action, great or small, has not been undertaken in deference to the divine will.  For those of us who are untried recruits in the life of the spirit, growth in humility comes out of doing what the Lord wants; for those who have reached midway along that route, the test is an end to inner conflict; and for the perfect there is increase and, indeed, a wealth of divine light.

(g)            Some people are full of praise for the gift of miracle working and for those other spiritual gifts that can be seen.  What they do not know is that there are many more important gifts and that these are hidden and are therefore secure.

(h)            A small fire can wipe out an entire forest and a small fault can ruin all our work.

(i)            There is . . . an exhaustion of the body that can actually evoke the flesh's lust.  So "we shall put no trust in ourselves" (2 Cor. 1:9).  We ought, rather, to depend on God, Who in His own secret way can mortify our living lusts.
           
(j)            If it comes to our attention that there are some who love us in the Lord, we must be very careful to keep our distance from them, since nothing can so damage love and produce hatred as familiarity. 

(k)            Give the first fruits of your day to the Lord, for it will determine the rest of the day.  An excellent servant of the Lord once said to me something well worth hearing.  "I can tell from my morning how the rest of the day will go."

(l)            There are many roads to holiness - and to hell.  A path wrong for one will suit another, yet what each is doing is pleasing to God.

(m)            Our eyes are a light to all the body.  Discernment of the virtues is a light to all the mind.

107-181            St. John then discusses more advanced forms of discernment and how such a gift may be fostered in a persons' soul.  (a) He speaks of the necessity of mortifying one's will, seeking the counsel of others with humility, and abandoning attachment to everything.  (b) A person must learn how to judge failures and successes in his spiritual pursuits and interpret their meaning.  (c) He must also learn not to follow certain inclinations that would lead him to take upon himself tasks beyond his capabilities.  (d) Such a virtue will help him to understand the meaning of the moral lapses in those who seem to be holy and blessed with many spiritual gifts.  (e) Gradually he will learn not to be surprised at the unexpected actions of others, but will remain a peace even when afflicted and rebuked.  (f) He will understand the need to strike down demons before giving them an opportunity to wound him.  (g) His eyes will be open to how demons seek to teach us how to interpret scripture in a distorted fashion and how they seek to confuse our thoughts.  (h) He will see how and in what manner he must enter into the struggle and who his enemies are.

(a)            Those who wish to discover the will of God must begin by mortifying their own will.  Then having prayed in faith and simplicity, all malice spent, they should turn humbly and in confidence to the fathers or even the brothers and they should accept their counsel, as though from God Himself, even when that counsel goes against the grain, even when the advice comes from those who do not seem very spiritual.  God, after all, is not unjust.  He will not lead astray the souls who, trusting and guileless, yield in lowliness to the advice and decision of their neighbor.  Even if those consulted are stupid, God immaterially and invisibly speaks through them and anyone who faithfully submits to this norm will be filled with humility.

            Yet this perfect and easy rule is rejected by many for reasons of pride.  Instead they have sought to discover the will of God by their own resources and within themselves and have then proceeded to offer us numerous and different opinions on this whole issue.

(b)            Some of those trying to discover the will of God abandoned every attachment.  They asked God to be the arbiter of any thoughts they might have concerning the stirrings of their souls, whether to do something or to resist it.  They prayed hard for a fixed number of days and they laid aside any inclination of their own.  In this way they found out what God willed, either through some direct manner of intelligible communication from Him or by the complete evaporation from their souls of whatever it was they had proposed to do.
            Others found so much trouble and distraction in whatever they were doing that they were led to think that bother of this sort could only have come from God, in accordance with the saying, "We wanted to come to you once and once again, but Satan prevented us" (1 Thes. 2:18).
            But there were others who found that a venture of theirs had proved unexpectedly successful, and so they inferred that it had pleased God, and they went on to declare that God helps everyone who chooses to do the right thing (Rom 8:28).

            Wavering judgment and lingering doubt are the signs of an unenlightened and vainglorious soul.
            God is not unjust.  He will not slam the door against the man who humbly knocks.
            In everything we do, in what has to be done now or later, the objective must be sought from God Himself; and every act that is not the product of personal inclination or of impurity will be imputed to us for good, especially if done for the sake of God and not for someone else.  This is so, even if the actions themselves are not completely good.
            There is always a danger in seeking for what is beyond our immediate reach, and what God has decided for us is hard to penetrate.  In His providence, He often conceals His will from us, for He knows that even if we knew about it, we would disobey it, thereby rendering ourselves liable to greater punishment.

(c)            There are brave souls who lovingly and humbly undertake tasks that are well beyond them.  There are proud hearts that do the same.  Now it often happens that our enemies deliberately inspire us to do things beyond our capacities, and their objective is to make us falter so that we abandon even what lies within our power, and make ourselves ridiculous to our enemies.
            I have observed men who were sick in soul and body and who, out of a sense of the great number of their sins, tried to do what was beyond their power, and therefore failed.  To these I say that God judges our repentance not by our exertions but by our humility.

(d)            Someone asked this question of a discerning man: "Why is it that God confers gifts and wonder-working powers on some, even though He knows in advance that they will lapse?"  His answer was that God does this so that other spiritual men may grow cautious, and to show that the human will is free, and to demonstrate that on the day of judgment there will be no excuse for those who lapsed.

(e)            You should not be surprise if those you love turn against you after you have rebuked them.  The frivolous are instruments of the demons, and are used, especially against the demon's enemies.

(f)            We should not spar with demons.  We should make outright war on them.  In the first case a fall is sometimes given or taken, but in the latter case the enemy is always under fierce attack.

(g)            When we begin religious life, some unclean demons give us lessons in the interpretation of scripture.  This happens particularly in the case of people who are either vainglorious or who have had a secular education, and these are gradually led into heresy and blasphemy.  One may detect this diabolical teaching about God, or rather war against God, by the upheaval, confusion, and unholy joy in the soul during lessons.
            Do not be surprised if demons often inspire good thoughts in us, together with the reasoned arguments against them.  What these enemies of ours are trying to do is to get us to believe that they know even our innermost thoughts.
           
(h)            Christ, although all-powerful, fled bodily from Herod.  So let the foolish learn not to fling themselves into temptation.  It is said: "Let not your foot be moved and let not your guardian angel slumber" (cf. Ps. 120:3).
            Like bindweed round a cypress, vanity twines itself around courage.  And we must be ever on guard against yielding to the mere thought that we have achieved any sort of good.  We have to be really careful about this, in case it should be a trait within us, for if it is, then we have certainly failed.
            If we watch out continually for signs of the passions, we will discover that there are many within us which, in our sickness, we never noticed.  We were too weak, or they were too deeply rooted.
            God judges us by our intentions, but because of His love for us He only demands from us such actions as lie within our power.  Great is the man who does all that lies within his power, but greater still is the man who, in all humility, tries to do more.
            Demons often prevent us from doing what would be easy and valuable for us.  Instead they like to push us into trying what is harder.
            Some who claim that our repeated lapses in some matter are caused by our failure to do adequate penance for earlier falls.  But the problem then arises as to whether those who have not fallen into the same type of sin over and over again have actually repented as they should.  People commit the same sin again and again either because they have thoroughly forgotten their previous sins, or because in their own pleasure-loving way they keep thinking that God is merciful, or because they have give up all hope of salvation.  Now - and I may be severely criticized for this - it seems to me that their real difficulty is that they have not had the strength to grip firmly what in fact is a dominating habit.
            At the start of religious life, the young and those of advanced years are not troubled by the same passions, since very often they have quite opposite failings.  Hence the fact that humility is so truly blessed, for it makes repentance safe and effective for both young and old.
            We must be very shrewd in the matter of knowing when to stand up against sin, when and to what extent to fight against whatever nourishes the passions, and when to withdraw from the struggle.  Because of our weakness there are times when we must choose flight if we are to avoid death.  We must watch and see which of the demons uplift us, which depress us, which make us hard, which bring us consolation, which darken us, which pretend to enlighten us, which make us lazy, which shifty, which make us sad and which cheerful.
            At the start of our religious lives, we may find that our passions are stronger than they were when we were in the world.  This should not upset us, and if we remove the causes of our sickness, then health will come to us.  Those beasts were formerly concealed in us, but they did not reveal themselves.
            It is characteristic of the perfect that they always know whether a thought comes from within themselves, or from God, or from the demons.  Remember that demons do not automatically propose evil at the outset.  Here we have a problem truly hard to penetrate.
            Two corporeal eyes give light to the body, and the eyes of the heart are enlightened by discernment in things seen and unseen.