Thursday, September 28, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 10

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

10. If your intellect is freed from all its enemies and attains the sabbath rest, it lives in another age, a new age in which it contemplates things new and undecaying. For “wherever the dead body is, there will the eagles be gathered together.”

This third of three statements about the freedom of the intellect is transformative. First, a sing that sin has died in us. Second, that the breach with God has been healed. But those are both negative things. Now we hear of the positive.

The freed intellect lives “in another age”: in eternity. Our intellect is able to exercise its proper function, of the contemplation of eternal things. We are now light-years from what has come before: from the use of the intellect for self-assertion or self-defense. Free from all fear and risk, and no longer even needing to pursue the truth, the intellect is now in possession of the living Truth, God himself. And yet, this talk of possession now seems out-of-place; or rather, backwards: the intellect now knows itself to be possessed by the Truth.

The spiritual life is so often likened to a journey these days, but here St. Isaiah recalls to us the image of a sabbath rest, of the conclusion of our journey. The journey finds its meaning in the conclusion and not in the process of getting there; the process was valuable because of the conclusion. And here we do not find that the conclusion is empty, nor is it unspoken as the Buddhist nibbana. No, the conclusion is with activity, and indeed, the true and proper activity for which the intellect was created.

In the possession of the Truth is the consummation as well of Socratic (and thus, all) philosophy. The pursuit and love of wisdom was always for the sake of wisdom, the dialectic was hunting after the Truth. Plato’s mistake, and that of all the rest of philosophy through the ages, is to settle for half the truth instead of continuing to search. But the contrary mistake is also dangerous: to mistake the journey for the destination, and to be content merely with a pilgrimage that, ultimately, leads nowhere.

St. Isaiah here depicts then, the destination: a sabbath rest, but a rest of contemplation—a state in which the intellect is doing what it ought to have been doing all along.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 9

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

9. If your intellect is freed, the breach between it and God is eliminated.

The previous text explained that freedom of the intellect from hope in things visible is a sign that sin has died within. Here this is broadened in two ways.

First, the freedom described is not just freedom "from hope in things visible", but simply freedom, full stop. Freedom therefore not from mistaken hope in things not able to deliver, but freedom from whatever oppresses. Indeed, the primary oppression is sin, and so this follows on, rather than restates, the previous text.

It is as if we are told that the care expressed in text seven about the use of the senses was first said to play a role in the freedom of our intellect from sin, and then we are told that this freedom in turn eliminates "the breach between it and God". Our intellect is divided from God in so many ways. Divided in understanding of God and itself, divided in relating to the world, divided in its anxiety and confusion.

But still not clear here is the story about how our intellect is freed, how the death of sin is obtained, how the breach between it and God is eliminated. The ontological fact is that the breach has been eliminated, for the Christian, and for St. Isaiah and the rest of the hesychastic tradition, by the already present and active grace of God, the sacramental life of the church, and the prayer of our hearts. These are the operative means by which this occurs.

It is our subjective apprehension of this already-accomplished objective fact which is lacking, and so it is appopriate to focus so strongly in this way on the intellect. It is the intellect which is principally implicated in the gap between our subjective apprehension and the objective reality as things are. It is here that the practical strategies of St. Isaiah (and the rest) come to the fore: not as mechanisms to achieve the cure for sin, but as mechanisms to apprehend it, to know it to have happened.

We seek signs and signals to see this already-accomplished objective fact. This is the proper function of the intellect, to seek these things, and so here we are told the practical strategies for that seeking and that growing understanding.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 8

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

8. If your intellect is freed from all hope in things visible, this is a sign that sin has died in you.

From the previous text, which advises a training exercise of closing the “gates of the soul,” we now have a brief discussion of why this is good and important.

This shows us what we heard before, in a broader sense. We were told in the last text to close attention to the senses to prevent the intellect not to be lured astray, until it has learned that it is not dominated by anything, and then a process of integration and wholeness can take root.

Now there is a broader description here, which undergirds and licenses that strategy. The false view would be that the world and sensible things are evil and we must remain pure from them. Here the reason given is quite different. It is that we must not hope in the things of the world. The reason for the sensory restraint advised in the previous text is here explained more fully: we will be given experience in recognizing that the things of this world are not necessary to us.

And once we see that we may stop hoping in them. This is then a sign that sin has died in us. But once more, we are thrust back on the anti-stoic point that this does not depend on us. We might have thought, “oh, I stop hoping in things visible, and that will make sin go away.” No. It is a sign that sin has died, but not the cause. The cause is something quite different: the redemption earned by Christ, and received through grace.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Monday, September 25, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 7

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

7. The monk should shut all the gates of his soul, that is, the senses, so that he is not lured astray. When the intellect sees that it is not dominated by anything, it prepares itself for immortality, gathering its senses together and forming them into one body.

It is interesting that the language of the senses as gates is one which the Pali canon of Buddhism also shares. In any event, the gates here are shut because through them the soul sees things which may lure it astray. A sort of mental “ooh, shiny thing!” and the soul is out the gate and gone.

But this is merely training, and it is here identified even as strictly monastic training. While certainly St. Isaiah intends a monastic audience for the whole work, here he calls attention to that fact. The monk is one who is consciously in training, and so here that highlights the way in which this is a training rule.

The things the senses show us are lures, attractions, which can pull us away. Away from what we ask? No answer here given. But we do not want to be astray, certainly, and the language of being “led astray” is very close to the language of error or sin, while not being quite the same thing. This is not, however, the condition of holiness, this living with the gates shut. The gates are shut, the senses are closed, not as if the world were a stained or unclean or unpure thing, still less as if the world were unholy. This is not Platonism. The gates are shut because the senses present to us temptations.

This is there for the purpose of training the intellect. The intellect then comes to see that it is not dominated by anything. The experience of living with the senses closed, not being lured away, shows the intellect that it can be quite secure without those external things; that they are not the substance or the essence of its life. So many live as if their intellect is subject to external sensory things, “things passing away” in the language of the collect. The intellect then seems to be dominated by them, unable to be free. And if we think it is dominated by sensible things, we will not be able or willing to submit it to God.

So this training exercise is a way of practicing the independence of the intellect from sensible things. When the intellect knows this independence, it can now prepare for immortality. Why? Because immortality is the condition of life with things eternal and invisible, in place of things transitory and visible. The intellect’s learning that it stands independent of the sensible things of the world enables the intellect to train itself and learn about immortality.

That training, in turn, is a return to the senses. In no way are they rejected, or is the world rejected. Just as fasting does not deny the goodness of food, the “sensory fast” here is also not a denial of the goodness of sensible things. But instead of the senses being disunited and at war, the intellect, once it sees that they do not dominate it, can enable them to become unified, as parts of one single body.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Sunday, September 24, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 6

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts.

6. If your heart comes to feel a natural hatred for sin, it has defeated the causes of sin and freed itself from them. Keep hell’s torments in mind; but know that your Helper is at hand. Do nothing that will grieve Him, but say to Him with tears, “Be merciful and deliver me, O Lord, for without Thy help I cannot escape from the hands of my enemies.” Be attentive to your heart, and He will guard you from all evil.

Some points to note: the hatred for sin we should feel is a natural hatred, that is, it is not contrary to our nature. But it may well be unusual or extraordinary or unworldly to have such a hatred. More normally, we would speak that our nature is a sinful nature, which is the more normal Western way to talk. But St. Iasiah and the Eastern Christians tend to use “nature” more specifically to refer to our nature before sin, without sin, what we were created to be. That nature is obscured and hidden perhaps, oppressed and beaten about, but not gone or in itself damaged. This is quite different from the Western way of talking, which produced in Calvin a doctrine that our nature is itself fallen.

Also, we cannot get the first sentence backwards here: the statement is not that we should cultivate a hatred for sin, and then we will defeat the cause of sin and be free of it. Rather, if we have that natural hatred, then we know that we are free, but the cause of feeling that natural hatred is not just a matter of choosing to feel it. Instead, St. Isaiah gives us a recipe for our salvation: he gives us a prayer, and attributes the action of salvation to Christ, not to our own willpower.

A difficulty is this language that the redeemed heart has defeated the causes of sin and freed itself. Isn’t that Christ’s doing? Indeed it is, and the heart which does this is only a heart so infused by the Holy Spirit that it cannot but will what God wills. This is what is filled out by the prayer St. Isaiah gives. We are told to be attentive to our heart, to listen to it, and to look in it for the signs of our salvation. It is Jesus Christ then who guards us from evil.

What we find in St. Isaiah’s text then is intended to be intensely practical. It is the methods and tools we should know in order to engage in this task of attentiveness to our hearts. But if we look at our hearts, what will we see? Will we see a heart with a natural hatred for sin, or will we not rather see a heart still bound by attachments to sin? So if we follow his prescription, we throw ourselves on God’s mercy all the more, and pray all the more this prayer he gives.

We become moved to seek the tools by which we can cultivate this attentiveness and pray more genuinely the prayer for God’s salvation, and it is this which he seeks to teach us.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Saturday, September 23, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 5

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

5. When the intellect hears these words of reassurance, it says boldly to its enemies, “Who would fight with me? Let him stand against me. And who would accuse me? Let him draw near to me. Behold, the Lord is my helper; who will harm me? Behold, all of you are like an old moth-eaten garment.”

The reassurance referred to is presumably that in the previous text, that God’s presence will be always with us, which is promised when we have submitted our intellect entirely to God. The fear I spoke of commenting on Text 4 was about the fear that the intellect’s own purposes and nature would be subverted by being subjected. The fear then was that an untrammeled intellect seems to be necessary for it to achieve its purpose of seeking truth, and that binding it to God might block the goal of the intellect. But, once we realize that God is truth, we hear the promise, the reassurance, that God will always be with the intellect, and will not abandon it, and the intellect is strengthened, not weakened, by its submission to God.

The strengthening now is broader in Text 5. Not only is it guarded against an apparent loss of its own function, but it is able to stand firm more solidly than before, with God as helper. Challenges to our ideas, to our thoughts, to our knowledge and our wisdom, are the sort of thing we would normally meet with a challenge back. The intellect asserts itself to defend our ideas in a sort of combat with opposing ideas, or worse, the people who express them. St. Isaiah, again quoting his namesake the prophet Isaiah, accepts the martial metaphor, but turns it on its head.

The intellect is strengethened here not to better argue against its enemies, or oppose them intellectually. But rather, by resting in the confidence of God’s presence, it has nothing to fear. There is no mention here of defeating the intellectual opponent, but only of withstanding because that opponent can do nothing. Indeed, the opponent need not be fought because he is only an “old moth-eaten garment.”

The intellect, secure in its knowledge that God is present and will always be present, confident in its submission to God, has nothing to fear either from a subversion of its purpose of seeking truth, or from a need to defend itself against enemies. God has promised help, and there is no need for combat or defense any longer.

This is thus quite different from Socratic dialectic, which must always be tested in discussion. (See the Crito!) Instead, the truth is not known because it is hard-won through struggle with competing visions of other people; the truth is known in a relationship of submission and loving adoration of God. The dialectic is thus perhaps exposed to be what Socrates’ opponents always thought it was: self-assertion.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Friday, September 22, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 4

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

4. If God sees that the intellect has entirely submitted to Him and puts his hope in Him alone, He strengthens it, saying, “Have no fear Jacob my son, my little Israel,” and, “Have no fear, for I have delivered you, I have called you by My name; you are Mine. If you pass through water, I shall be with you, and the rivers will not drown you. If you go through fire, you will not be burnt, and the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, who saves you.”

The three preparatory texts have counseled us about things secondary to the intellect: about anger, good or bad, about spiritual pride, and about the moral prerequisites of holy fear, virtuous life, and a well-nurtured conscience. Now on to the topic of the piece, the intellect.

The submission of the intellect is perhaps one of the hardest things to deal with as a modern. We are supposed to use our minds; the Episcopal Church loves the tagline that in our churches you are not expected to “check your mind at the door.” The intellect is, for us, a great defense. It is how we understand and appropriate the world, how we manipulate the world to achieve our goals and avoid harm. But I don’t think this is distinctively modern. It sounds modern, but human nature has not changed all that much.

St. Isaiah is addressing then a fear that we may have if we proceed on the course of submission of the intellect to God. The fear is that we will no longer be safe. The things that the intellect is good for will be subverted if we do not remain solidly in control of it. But this isn’t so, is it? If we believe that Jesus Christ is the Truth, then what exactly do we have to fear by submitting the intellect to truth? Nothing! And isn’t a person supposed to submit their minds to the truth, in preference to all attachments, all ego, all desire?

The fear then that by submitting our intellect to God we will lose our greatest tool for approaching the world gets entirely wrong the relation between the world, the intellect, and God. God cannot lead us astray; if we submit our intellect to God, we improve our safety, not the opposite. We find our true security, and our true needs met. St. Isaiah knows and presumes all this. Only one thing remains: to overcome our fear and anxiety about losing control. We ought to use our intellect to seek the truth, but in fact we so often use it to preserve control, or the illusion of control.

This is the real spiritual problem, so it’s right here that St. Isaiah goes, by quoting his namesake the prophet Isaiah and declaring that a strong intellect, and strong defense come from God. It is our fear that must be quelled in this process, and so the reassuring and ancient words of God are called for, who loves and cares for us, who has gone to such long straits to redeem us.

One further note: see the tense of the prophet’s words as St. Isaiah quotes them. Our future is secure, because our redemption has already been accomplished, and our salvation is occurring now, as we speak.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Thursday, September 21, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 3

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

3. Let us stand firm in the fear of God, rigorously practicing the virtues and not giving our conscience cause to stumble. In the fear of God let us keep our attention fixed within ourselves, until our conscience achieves its freedom. Then there will be a union between it and us, and thereafter it will be our guardian, showing us each thing that we must uproot. But if we do not obey our conscience, it will abandon us and we shall gall into the hands of our enemies, who will never let us go. This is what our Lord taught us when He said: “Come to an agreement with your adversary quickly while you are with him in the road, lest he hand you over to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer and you are cast into prison.” The conscience is called an “adversary” because it opposes us when we wish to carry out the desires of our flesh; and if we do not listen to our conscience, it delivers us into the hands of our enemies

Here is a two-stage process, though most of the emphasis is on the second stage. Stage one is to develop a conscience, and then stage two is to respect it. Stage one is so crucial and so easily overlooked. The first stage is to achieve freedom for our conscience, and we do this by “standing firm in the fear of God” and “rigorously practicing the virtues.” In other words, a certain inner attitude of humility and holy fear, combined with the outward practice of a virtuous life, result together in a freed conscience.

If our conscience is not freed yet, then what is it bound to? It must be bound to our sins, which keep it in chains. It can be distorted and undeveloped and impotent. But the crucial thing I want to point out here is that it is only once the conscience has been freed that St. Isaiah proceeds to talk about our obligation to obey it. Before it has been freed, our task is to stand firm in the fear of God, and to rigorously practice the virtues. That is, we look to external standards first, and the assiduous following of these external standards frees our conscience: our internal standard.

St. Isaiah promises that once our conscience has been freed, there will be union between it and us. We can then trust and rely on it, and it will teach us. The fear of God and the practice of the virtues is thus only the first step, with much still left to be done: much still left to be “uprooted.” We internalize our standards and our compass, and our own conscience becomes our guide for all that remains to be done. We then become equipped to measure the external standards around us, testing and sifting them to see whether they are correct for us or not.

But what a disaster if we reverse the order! If our conscience is still chained, then it is not in a position to measure the external standards presented to us, and if we try to let it do so, nothing good can come of it. We are likely to simply allow our distorted desires to take free hold, and judge all external standards not against our conscience (bound and confined as it still is) but rather against our desires and impulses and passions.

This is the great virtue of holy fear and external standards of virtue. They assure us, by their very objectivity, that they are not subject to our own unconverted whims and passions. But once our conscience is freed, we owe it our obedience. Here it is striking that St. Isaiah allegorizes the saying of Jesus to take our conscience—the voice of the Holy Spirit in our heart!—as an adversary. But so it seems if our conscience, once freed and active within us, is disregarded. It chases us, hounding us, not letting us go. Unless, finally, it abandons us, and that is what St. Isaiah is here warning us about.

This is troubling and takes care to understand well. It is not that the Holy Spirit abandons us in a literal sense. This is not right, because God is always with us. It is that by delivering us up to our enemies, the Holy Spirit is taking advantage of our own passions and desires to bring us back. How could that process work? If we disregard our conscience, and then are delivered “into the hands of our enemies” (that is, the demons which afflict us, our disorded desires and sinful hearts), how is this supposed to be good for us?

Ah! External standards again! This is the picture. The conscience teaches us “what must be uprooted,” that is, what remains in us still for spiritual work, restraint of sin, holiness of life, and so forth, even after we have achieved a true holy fear and the practice of the virtues. Suppose, while keeping our holy fear and our practice of the virtues, we neglect what our conscience teaches us about what further there is to do. (Are we not then resting in the “works of the law” for our salvation?) Then, according to St. Isaiah, our concscience delivers us over to our enemies, and we should expect that we become beset once more by contempt of God and vicious living—that is, the state before we had holy fear and practice of the virtues. And this may—let us hope!—wake us up to what has happened and call us back.

God is not satisfied with half-measures.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 2

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts.

2. If you find yourself hating your fellow men and resist this hatred, and you see that it grows weak and withdraws, do not rejoice in your heart; for this withdrawal is a trick of the evil spirits. They are preparing a second attack worse than the first; they have left their troops behind the city and ordered them to remain there. If you go out to attack them, they will flee before you in weakness. But if your heart is then elated because you have driven them away, and you leave the city, some of them will attack you from the rear while the rest will stand their ground in front of you; and your wretched soul will be caught between them with no means of escape. The city is prayer. Resistance is rebuttal through Christ Jesus. The foundation is incensive power.

The first text was about a good anger as opposed to bad anger; now what happens if we have defeated our bad anger? If we have achieved peace and stillness towards our fellows, what next? That is, our attitude towards our anger and wrath towards others: we should be angry at our anger and wrath towards others. So surely there must be a good pride, just as there is a good anger; that is, if it was right to have a certain kind of anger towards our own internal enemy, then surely it must also be right to have pride if we have defeated it.

But no. We have here a spiritual interpretation of the story of the assault on Ai. The enemies do not ever really withdraw; they are always there. If we rejoice that we have defeated our own sinfulness, then we open ourselves up to even greater sin. The thought that we have defeated our own sinfulness is a mistaken thought, an illusion, indeed, we are told here it is a deceit our enemy plants. And if we rejoice in this illusion, we end up bitten back.

St. Isaiah adds a second bit to the allegory. The city is prayer. So our rejoicing if we think we have defeated our own demons is a running out from prayer, and if we leave our prayer behind in that pride, we open ourselves to further and more dangerous attack. Indeed, the attack may be the defeat of the city entirely: the overthrow of our prayer and our loss of ourselves.

We must resist in the name of Jesus Christ, not that is trusting in our own power or our own prayer as if our prayer were the agent protecting us. The city is where we are in our prayer, but the resistance is from Christ, and only from him. It is the attribution of our spiritual successes to ourselves, and leaving our true fortress behind, which opens us up to this greater danger.

So now, what should we do in response to spiritual success? If we should not be proud and joyful, then what? Continue to pray, to recognize that the defeat of our demons is not over or trivially accomplished. Most of us discover as adults that the same issues come up over and over, the same trials and difficulties, the same areas where we are unhappy with ourselves and try to improve. Here we are given the rich advice that when we encounter moderate success, we will not stay successful if we do not remain just as vigilant as before. Our trial (our combat!) is against an enemy rather more tenacious than that.

We should instead act with thanksgiving for the respite, continue in prayer even more fervently than before, and watchful for the first glance of our old demons peeking around the bend, seeking to renew the assault.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

St. Isaiah the Solitary 1

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

1. There is among the passions an anger of the intellect, and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without anger a man cannot attain purity; he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. When Job felt this anger he reviled his enemies, calling them “dishonorable men of no repute, lacking everything good, whom I would not consider fit to love with the dogs that guard my flocks.” He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.

Amidst the usual emphasis on stilling the passions, it’s rather striking that the very first words of the Philokalia are on a good passion. The general view expressed, that the passions are unnatural and residues of sin, is mollified right away, by a good passion.

One might think that this “anger of the intellect” is against untruth or unrighteousness or such things. And, in a sense, so it is. But this is a paradoxical reversal. Normally anger is about self-assertion, whether it is defensive or offensive anger, it is about protecting or advancing the self over and against others. But notice that St. Isaiah’s conclusion is that the acquisition of this anger requires the uprooting of self-will. So it is a strange anger, an anger which is not about advancing the self but about defeating the self, or a particular part of it.

Indeed, if ordinary anger is about the assertion of the self, this is an anger which is turned against ordinary anger. It is the anger of frustration and dislike for all that within us is “sown by the enemy.” All the spiritual decay and sordidness of our hearts, is here to be angered at. St. Isaiah is telling us that the one thing we must not attempt to make peace with is our own lack of peace! We must not be complacent with our own deficiencies and sinfulness, but instead we must, at least, be angry at them. Even if we are impotent to change them or our efforts are frustrated, we must at least not rest.

This anger at our own shortcomings is also a sort of hunger for God, I think. The same frustration with our own brokenness and the things in us we want to change, but cannot, is a hunger for the God who can change them and us. In other words, the one disquietude we should have is a yearning for God; the one rest and contentment we should not have is to rest and be content with the absence of God.

And this is a natural anger, which is not only the statement that it is not part of our fallen nature, but that it is functional. It is a sort of natural tendency in us to restore our equilibrium, an equilibrium which our fallen nature has lost. There is within us a sort of “restoring force” which pushes us back to our center, back to God. And that restoring force is here seen to be a species of anger, that is, of passionate and powerful disquietude with our lack of proper equilibrium.

St. Isaiah also offers here a bit of spiritual exegesis, a suggestion for how we might read imprecatory passages of Scripture. The great and holy Job was angry at his friends, says Isaiah, and this was the natural good sort of anger. But this must mean that Job was angry at “what was sown within him by the enemy.” The point is that what his friends said to him was a sowing in him of doubt and discord, and with which he was angry, and rightly so. Job was right to maintain his integrity, and those who tried to impugn him were wrong in doing so, and Job was rightly bothered by what had been sown in him, and rightly angry at it.

Indeed, the reference from Job 30 here is about Job’s being made an object of ridicule, and with the self-focus of St. Isaiah’s context, it is ultimately that Job is losing confidence in himself (or a part of him is) and he is angry with that part, sown in him by the words of his friends.

The broader sense here is the very common one that imprecatory scriptures can be read as imprecatory towards our own misdeeds, of course, a theme that is very common among spiritual writers.

Index of Comments on the Philokalia