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