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