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