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

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