Sunday, August 17, 2008

St. Isaiah the Solitary 12

St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts

12. Our teacher Jesus Christ, out of pity for mankind and knowing the utter mercilessness of the demons, severely commands us: "Be ready at every hour, for you do not know when the thief wil come; do not let him come and find you asleep." He also says: "Take heed, lest your hearts be overwhelmed with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of this life, and the hour come upon you unawares." Stand guard, then, over your heart and keep a watch on your senses; and if the remembrance of God dwells peaceably wihin you, you will catch the thieves when they try to deprive you of it. When a man has an exact knowledge about the nature of thoughts, he recognizes those which are about to enter and defile him, troubling the intellect with distractions and making it lazy. Those who recognize these evil thoughts for what they are remain undisturbed and continue in prayer to God.

Continuing the topic of vigilance from the previous text, we hear now of prerequisites for vigilance and the results.

Guarding the intellect is a matter of two things. First, it is the remembrance of God, dwelling peaceably within us, which enables us to "catch the thieves" who steal in. Remembrance is not just a momentary remembering, a thing which comes and goes, but rather the habitual resting of the soul in God. If we wish to be vigilant--and surely we do!--then we must cultivate this remembrance. Here lies the essence of spiritual practice, of discipline: to cultivate this resting, this remembrance, this ongoing practical knowledge of the peace of God dwelling within us.

For it is indeed knowledge that is at stake, as the second prerequisite makes clear. We can ward off the thieves only when we know which thoughts are thieves and which are not, and this is a matter of knowledge. It is a subtle knowledge, however. It lies not in the realm of propositions and things of which we could be convinced. It is more in the realm of acquaintance, of intimate relationship.

This text marks a transition to a more mature spiritual life as well. We are promised rest, and lack of disturbance--how different from the holy anger of the first text this is, and how striking is the shift from battle to recognition. It is as if, once we have acquired the knowledge and the remembrance of God, we no longer need to battle the enemies which assault us.

Instead, we recognize them, and can prevent them from making even an initial enemy. What a blessing this is, because with it we are no longer in the need to engage them. We already knew that with God's help they could not hurt us, if we willingly fought them, if we had the holy anger that St. Isaiah's first text calls for. But now we have a stronger promise: if, with remembrance and knowledge, we recognize them before they even enter, we will be at peace.

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