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