Wednesday, February 21, 2018

St. Isaac the Syrian - Slipping Beyond the Bounds to Attain the Unattainable

Archimandrite Vasileios opens our view to the horizon in this reflection in order that we might catch sight not only the journey ahead but that we might be filled with fervor and wonder for what is held in store for us.  We are on a ceaseless journey and everything in this world is transcended as we enter into the eternal silence and repose of God.  The movement is beyond virtue and ethics and all worldly hope and freedom.  The struggle is great, but the glory that is beyond prayer and freedom and that is filled with the joy of the divine, makes all other things seem as nothing.  There is a time for everything and one cannot elude the necessity of bodily toil and asceticism.  We suffer the shame of the cross in order to share in its glory and the reception of the Comforter.  The path ahead holds violence born of fervor beyond measure.  One transcends oneself and moves from glory to glory; all requiring the death to the false self, a willingness to experience the painful separation from the illusions we create for ourselves in order to be drawn into a vision of God.  In the eyes of the world it is a state of derangement where one is no longer directed or set upon the order of things here, but upon an ineffable sweetness that descends and floods man's being.

It is a ceaseless journey, an ascent, an ascension.

All things reach the point of transcendence.  They are surpassed.  They are done away with. They cease.

We enter into absolute silence and repose.

A person freed from passions, from ignorance, from vice.  He is not bound by "the other means which dishonor a man."  The present life is not big enough for him.  He does not bind himself to the present life.

He is not confined to worldly ethics and hope.  "For the hope of this present life enfeebles the thinking."  Despair shatters the hard, confining shell of worldly hope, the prison of sterility - "no weapon is stronger than despair" - pouring forth torrents of light in darkness.

He does not make good works, virtue, his aim in life.  He attains these, and by the grace of God moves beyond them: "Faith's way of life is more exalted than virtue, and its labor is not works, but perfect rest and consolation."

Calmly he moves on beyond the bounds of motion, speech, sensation, knowledge, activity of any kind.  "He becomes a free man and a ruler of himself, and as a son of God with authority he freely wields all things."

In the end he casts off even his own freedom. "Then a man's nature is deprived of its free will . . . it is led whither it knows not by some other power . . . at that moment it is held fast in captivity."  He finds himself then in the "ignorance" which is above all knowledge and the "captivity" which is above all freedom.

He has broken every barrier.  He has attained the Unattainable.  "His intellect is confounded and swallowed up in awestruck wonder, and forgets the very desire of its own entreaty."

From now on "the mind no longer possesses prayer, or movement, or weeping, or dominion, or free will or supplication, or desire, or fervent longing for things hoped for in this life or in the age to come."

But getting there takes a real struggle.  And Abba Isaac does not merely speak to you about this.  You see him in his book actually going beyond the bounds of corruption.  You can make out the divine changes in his person and the fact that he is wholly in that realm which is beyond the world, where everything has been done away with and transcended.

Now, "making his abode in the glory which brings joy," he reveals through his being how the spiritual laws work and how one progresses towards transcendence in all areas, subjects and levels.

Each thing has its own rhythm and its own time.  You have to wait and let it move along on its own.

An illness has to go run its course before it leaves the patient.  A fruit has to go through all the stages, in appropriate climatic conditions, in order to ripen.

We cannot ask for things that have their proper time when it is not their proper time.  

"When it is not the proper time, let us not yearn after the lofty things, let us not yearn after the lofty things of the noetic discipline, lest we be made a laughing stock by our cunning adversary."

"Every man that before the time begins things that are beyond his measure makes his harm twofold."

We should not ask for things that prosper in one particular place where it is not the place for them.  "Let every work be honored  in its own place, lest we become confused in our discipline."

So then all this is necessary - a place, a time, a special procedure - in order for something genuine and true to come out of what we do.  ("There is an order for every work, and for every discipline there is a fixed time."  Afterwards, this outcome speaks, stands and comforts man in every time and place.

Physical toil precedes spiritual rest. "And just as in the beginning, the fashioning of the body preceded the inbreathing of the soul, so the works of the body precede the labor of the soul."  "Regard every virtue performed without bodily toil as premature, stillborn fruit of the womb."

First comes force and toil, and later we reach the point where things are unforced and effortless.  First comes the struggle, and later we attain to rest, enjoyment and plentitude.

"Ascetical endeavor is the mother of sanctification . . . Let know man deceive himself, and imagine divinations; for a polluted soul does not ascend to the pure kingdom, nor is such a soul joined to the spirits of the holy."

We shall start, then, with the works of the body.  Matter, force, struggle will form the initial steps that enable us to climb.  Without these, we cannot make any headway: "When you desire to draw nigh to God with your heart, first show Him your yearning by bodily labors."

Without passing through the dishonor of the cross of practice virtue, it is not possible to reach the second part of the crucifixion, the glory of the cross, when man is released from passions and conceptual images.

"Until a man has received the Comforter, he requires the divine scriptures."  This is why he advises: "Fetter your intellect by reading the Scriptures."  "Occupy yourself with reading books, which will make plain to you the subtle pathways of divine vision."  "Without assiduous reading, a man will know no refinement of thoughts."  "Continual reflection on Scriptures is a light to the soul."

But "when the power of the Spirit has penetrated the power of the soul . . . then he is secretly taught by the Spirit and needs no help from sensory matter."  And "his mind will be exalted above the images of things."

He starts with teaching, and speech which "is an instrument of this world," and attains to the "silence which is a mystery of the age to come."  He is "silenced by his ignorance of all that is found there.  This is the unknowing which is more sublime than knowledge."

"Knowledge is a step whereby one can climb up to the lofty height of faith; and when one has reached faith, one no longer has need of knowledge."  One transcends the whole of the sensible world, and "perception is received by the spirit and not by the senses."

In this state, "knowledge is abolished, works come to an end and the employment of the sense become superfluous."

"Mourning is the work of the monk."  "And when the soul is given fervor, the contrition of mourning is taken away."

Tears are a bodily sign that your intellect has come out of the prison of this world.  "If you observe that your eyes are filled with tears . . . then know that a breach in the opposing camp has begun to appear for you."

"But when the mind is exalted above created things, the body also takes leave of tears and of every movement and sensation."

From just judgment it passes on to mercy.  This is the fulfillment and transcendence of just judgment. "Mercy is opposed to just judgment."

After a long life in stillness, "you find a joy which is without cause . . . and then your eyes are opened to see God's creative power and the beauty of created things."  But even there you do not stay long.  "Since all the beauty of things to exist in the newness to come is inferior to God's beauty, how can the intellect depart, through contemplation of it, from the beauty of God?"

"From activity that demands violence there is born fervor beyond measure."  And it attains to the prayer which comes about "without effort or wandering of thoughts."

In the beginning, arduous toil and pain are needed in prayer: "Reckon every prayer wherein the body does not toil and the heart is not afflicted to be a miscarriage."  Later on, "a man does not pray with labor and weariness . . . but because his heart is full of joy and wonder it continually wells up motions of gratitude."

Ultimately, even prayer itself is done away with.  "For what pertains to prayer has ceased, while a certain divine vision remains, and the mind does not pray a prayer."  "The intellect comes to be above prayer, and by the discovery of something better, prayer is abandoned."

There is a divine visitation and heavenly joy which fills the whole body.  Earthly things are abandoned.  A person forgets the things that are in the world, because an ineffable sweetness descends and floods his being.  "A fountain springs up in his heart, gushing forth sweetness: his members grow feeble . . . so that because of the joy which surges through his entire body, he cannot make prostrations."

In that state there is no distinction between body and soul.  "Whenever that delight which surges through his whole body sojourns within a man, at that hour he things that nothing else is the Kingdom of the heavens save this."

He experiences the grace of the incarnation and the blessing of the union, without confusion or division, of the two natures of Christ.  He is anti-Nestorian in both his teaching and his life.  The grace of interpenetration sets its seal on his whole being and character and gives it life.  Then night and day are one; sufferings and joys are one.  And he finds trials and tribulations sweeter than honey.

In this state, the passions are confronted in a way that is dynamic. They are overcome by other, greater things.

"The joy that is in God is stronger than the present life."  There is a divine drunkeness which makes the body insensible to all tribulations.  "When the soul is drunken with the joy of hope and with the gladness which is in God, the body becomes insensible to tribulations, even if it be feeble."

Thus, "entrance to the heart is denied to the passions not as a result of struggle, but because of the repletion of our conscious mind."  "This is not because the assaults of the passions have ceased to exist, but because the heart which receives them is now dead to them and lives in something else."  "For the conscience is satiated in the enjoyment of something else."  And "in the place of the assaults another desire, stronger than them, has gained the mastery."

Fear and shame come first.  "The fear of God is the beginning of virtue."  "The intellect weighed down by fear of God and shame is not readily upset by the things that sway it."

And when the temperature of love rises, "there is seen an unaccustomed change."  (He talks about this state in the thirty fifth homily).

The love of God is by nature fervent.  And when it comes upon a person without measure, he cannot contain it.  "Love does not know shame, and for this reason she does not know to give a form of propriety to her members."

And it brings about an unaccustomed changed in him, the signs of which are perceptible on his body. His face becomes flushed and shining with joy.

Fear and shame leave him.  He becomes like someone in a state of ecstasy.

The power of his intellect deserts him, and he becomes like a man out of his wits.

Fearsome death he regards with joy.

The contemplation of his intellect is permanently fixed on heavenly things.

Though absent, he consorts with others as if he were present, unseen by anyone.  

His natural knowledge and sight pass away; he is not aware of his movement by sense perception.

If he performs any action he is not altogether aware of it, because his intellect is rapt in contemplation.

And his mind is constantly in converse with someone else.

This is the spiritual drunkenness with which the Apostles and Martyrs were inebriated; and being wise, they were thought fools.  Others wandered in the wilderness . . . being well-ordered amidst disorder.

May God grant us to attain such derangement.

Archimandrite Vasileios
Abbot of Iveron Monastery, Mount Athos
Abba Isaac the Syrian
An Approach to His World