Tuesday, November 18, 2014

We Have A Little Garden...

My wife is a Beatrix Potter fan.  I think she has collected all of her little books and many books about her.  If you have ever received a thank-you card from Bonnie, you can see the influence of Beatrix Potter on her doodles and watercolours.  Often Bonnie will decorate with Beatrix.  Sometimes she will open a book to a particular page and then mount the book on the wall.  Right next to our bed on her side, she has had Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes mounted for a few weeks.  She has the book open to the first half of the following nursery rhyme:

We have a little garden,
A garden of our own,
And every day we water there
The seeds that we have sown.

We love our little garden,
And tend it with such care,
You will not find a faded leaf
Or blighted blossom there.

The first half of this nursery rhyme has stuck in my head for the past few days—as if it were a bible verse or insightful saying of a holy father.  To tell you the truth, I am not in much for nursery rhymes.  Neither am I particularly good at riddles or sayings with double meanings.  I have a pretty thick skull—I’m a ‘say-what-you-mean-and-mean-what-you-say’ sort of guy.  Subtleness is wasted on me.  (That may be why I married an artist.  I need someone to take care of me who sees what I don’t see, someone who will gently let me know when I’m missing what is obvious to everyone else.)  Nevertheless this nursery rhyme has stuck in my head and it slowly dawned on me that  Beatrix Potter is not merely talking about a garden.  She is talking about life.

The garden is the life God has given each of us.  Every garden is different.  Every region and soil type and gradient in relation to the sun has its own challenges and opportunities.  Some (like us) have lot’s of rain and very little sun in the spring: great for berries.  Others have lots of sun, but little water: great for all kinds of vegetables, if you are faithful to water them.  Some have alkali soils that need lots of treatment to grow most veggies.  Some gardens have lots of sand, which is great for melons.  There are some things about a garden you can change, but other things you can’t change.  You can change the soil, slowly over the years.  You can extend the season by building greenhouses and shelters. If you work at it, you can do many things to make your garden better.

But there are lot’s of things you can’t change about your garden.  You can’t change the location: your garden is where it is.  It is just like a family.  You are born somewhere in a family you didn’t choose into circumstances, limitations and opportunities over which you have had no control whatsoever and over which you will have only little control throughout your life.  Like a garden, some things you can change, some things you can ameliorate, and lots of things you just have to accept and work with or around or through.  Life is a lot like a garden.

And like a garden, you get to choose what you want to plant—although it is only with experience and sage advice that you learn what grows best in your soil.  Nonetheless, you get to choose some things that you will plant.  And then there are other things you will plant by mistake: seeds and bits of root that have stuck to your clothing or got mixed in with the good seed.  Or sometimes we plant the wrong vegetable by mistake.  The beets that you thought you had planted turn out to be turnips.  Life is a lot like that.  And then there are the weed seeds that the birds drop on your garden as they fly over, or the seeds that the wind blows into your garden or the runners from the blackberries thirty feet away that tunnel all the way underground just to come up in the middle of your strawberries.  You don’t get to choose those seeds.

But whether you choose it or not, you have to deal with it.  It is your garden.  The seeds you water will grow, maybe.  Weeds you ignore will take over, certainly.  In life, like in a garden, it is hard to grow good fruit.  It is easy to grow weeds.  All you have to do is nothing and the weeds will take over.  Plants that bear the fruit we want, however, require attention.  We must pay attention to our life, to what we sow, to what we water, to what we encourage, to what we give our time and energy and money.  We have to attend.  

Bonnie and I were at a coffee shop/bookstore last night and saw a book on 100 things one should do before he or she dies.  I thumbed through the book full of exciting places to see and things to do.  Really, none of them interested me.  

“And so what is on your bucket list then?” Bonnie asked me.

“I don’t have a bucket list,” I told her.  I just want to tend the garden God has given me.  There are lots of beautiful and exciting things that would be interesting and fun to see or do, maybe (I really don’t like traveling much. And as for excitement, I think my life is already about as exciting as I can handle).  But even if I did get a chance to jump of a cliff in Peru with a parachute on my back, how is that going to help the fruit of mercy or love or gentleness grow in my garden?  

I don’t really want to do anything before I die.  I want to be something.  I want to be a kind person.  I want to be someone who would rather be hurt than to hurt someone else.  I want to be someone who knows how to love in ways that bring health and life.  I want to be someone, as St. Paul puts it, whose gentleness is known to all.  That’s my bucket list.  That’s what I want growing in my garden when I die.

And so I water the gentleness bushes.  I tend to the mercy vines.  I pull the thorny thistles away from the struggling love flower—and then I tend to my fingers, pulling out thorns, stopping the blood, cleaning the wounds.  Gardening is not for cowards.  

Sunday, November 09, 2014

St. Isaac's Three Degrees of Knowledge

Below is a paper I presented for the Orthodox Institute on the topic of St. Isaac the Syrian's understanding of Theosis.  It's long.  I thought I would post it as one piece instead of breaking it up incase anyone wanted to copy any of it.  At least it will all be together.
Fr. Michael

The Three Degrees of Knowledge: An Exploration of Theosis in the Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian
V. Rev. Michael Gillis

Glory be to Him who richly pours forth His gifts upon men! …By His grace He has dispelled the hardness of our hearts, that we might gain understanding from the divine vision of the Scriptures and the instructions of the great Fathers.  For by my own struggles I have not been vouchsafed to experience even one thousandth part of what I have written with my hands, and especially in this homily which I now compose for the healing and enlightenment of our souls, and of those who come across it, with the hope that, perchance, some might rouse themselves by reason of their desire for what I speak of, and endeavour to practise it (238)

The influence of St. Isaac the Syrian (+ c. 700) on Orthodox Christian spirituality cannot be overestimated.  He was a man of practical spirituality, a bishop and a hermit who, through his writings, has been able to guide thousands upon thousands of other hermits, monks and laypeople into a deeper relationship with God in Christ.  In my own life, St. Isaac’s words have been a light to me, not so much a light outside illuminating my path, but a light inside.  That is, sometimes when I read St. Isaac it is as though I am not reading words in a book outside me; but it is as if something inside me suddenly sees, knows and understands; it is as if a lightning flash suddenly appears within me.  This inner experience is often wordless.  It is a knowing and seeing beyond conception (in contrast to “getting it” in mathematics, science, languages or other academic pursuits).  Consequently, it is very difficult to speak about.  To speak of such things feels too much like lying.  There are no words, and yet love compels us to find words, to grope, to try to share an image, metaphor or allegory that points in some small way to the reality one knows and experiences beyond words. 

St. Isaac wrote in Syriac, not in Greek.  Furthermore, St. Isaac was outside the Christian empire, outside the intellectual world that influenced much of the Orthodox Christian Spirituality written in Greek.  As a result, St. Isaac didn't use many standard Greek technical terms such as, for example, theosis.  But that doesn’t mean that St. Isaac didn’t know and teach the way to becoming sons of God by grace.  It means that he taught the Orthodox way with a perspective that is fresh to us who are used to thinking in the categories and vocabulary of the Greek theological tradition and that often brings enlightenment through unexpected images and vocabulary.  Archimandrite Vasileios, a man whom Metropolitan Kalistos Ware describes as “the pioneer of the striking revival and renewal of monastic life on the Holy Mountain,” (Editor’s Note, Vasileios, 5) says St. Isaac “describes to you with assurance and sobriety what happens on the journey towards deification” (Vasileios, 14).

St. Isaac is not a systematic writer.  He writes as one moved by the Spirit, not as one writing a treatise.  Consequently, it would be foolish to try to impose order on his writing based on my own limited understanding of his writings and even more limited experience of the spiritual realities of which he writes.  Nonetheless, as a fool, I have endeavoured to layout some of his teaching in a form that may be easier for beginners like myself to understand—with the hope that some may be enticed to buy his homilies and read them and even begin in some small ways to practice what he teaches.  

St. Isaac’s homilies are full of several-step dictums, pithy proverbs and colourful images each pointing the way along the spiritual path to Christ-likeness. Nevertheless, there is one particular metaphor that is often quoted from St. Isaac’s works.  Understanding this image will, I think, help us enter in some small way into understanding St. Isaac’s teaching about human transformation into Christ-likeness.  The image is of three degrees of knowledge.  St. Isaac is quick to point out that these are not three different kinds of knowledge; but rather, they are three degrees, or levels of perception.  All three degrees are necessary—even the first, or lowest.  For St. Isaac, lower degrees of knowledge must be “swallowed by” or submitted to higher degrees.  These three degrees of knowledge are called 1) contrary to nature, 2) natural, and 3) super natural (128, 362, 399).  It will be easier to understand these three degrees of knowledge and how they relate to and reveal theosis if we begin with the second, then discuss the first and finally the third.

The Second Degree
The second degree of knowledge, the natural degree of knowledge, is a knowing that is according to a human being’s created nature, or knowing according to a healthy human mind.  This degree of knowledge discerns good from evil and leads to the fear of God.  It is a knowing that deduces the existence of God and the reality of judgement from the observation of the creation (291-3, 360) and by the initial stages of attention to one’s own inner life (i.e. one might reason, ‘if I judge others for being unkind to me, probably the Creator will judge me for being unkind to others’).  Through turning from bestial appetites and merely calculating, worldly ways of knowing, one returns to a healthy state of mind, a mind ruled by a kind of moral (not merely calculating) reason.  As one returns to a healthy state of mind, God can grant the gift of faith which “produces fear in us, and fear compels us to repent and to set ourselves to work” (361).  

Knowledge leads us to virtue, but faith is greater than knowledge; and knowledge must follow faith, which is the appropriate order, once faith is revealed.  This initial faith St. Isaac refers to as the faith of hearing (c.f. Job 42:5).  Faith then leads knowledge to virtuous works of the body such as fasting, vigil, love for one’s neighbor, investigating the Scripture, controlling the passions, etc. (394,5,8).  However, this progress in virtue does not go unhindered.  In this second degree of knowledge, labour is required, “the sweat of the brow”; and virtuous works are often accompanied by the pain of thorns.  Nevertheless, these virtuous actions are perfected by the action of the Holy Spirit (398) and lead one to the beginning of contemplation, or theoria -  “Divine vision of created things” (148), “divine vision of God’s judgements and of visible creation” (146).

When one is being perfected in (maturing or growing in) the good deeds expressed in concrete actions and the theoria of the second degree of knowledge, “another faith is begotten…called the faith of divine vision”  (361) which is the condition and the means by which one begins to enter the third degree of knowledge.

The First Degree
But before we look at the third degree of knowledge, let’s go back and take a look at the first.  The first degree of knowledge is what St. Isaac calls “common knowledge” or knowledge that is “contrary to human nature.”  St. Isaac says that we fall to this level of knowledge by being concerned for our body and its comforts: “the pleasure loving will veils natural knowledge” (362).  It is merely psychic (e.g. according to the [unenlightened, merely calculating] soul or mind; c.f. 1 Cor. 2:14).  It is the knowledge of “rational wisdom” which is suitable only for guidance in worldly, merely mechanical things.  It is the knowledge that produces “novelties of invention, the arts [i.e. how to do stuff], sciences, doctrines [i.e. laws]; and all other things which crown the body in this visible world” ( 396).

This first degree of knowledge “uproots love” (397).  It is a knowledge that “investigates the minute faults of other men and the causes thereof, and their weaknesses; and it arms a man for stubbornly upholding his opinion, for disputation, and aids him in cunningly employing devices and crafty machinations…. In this knowledge are produced and are found presumption and pride, for it attributes every good thing to itself, and does not refer it to God” (397). It “follows the desire of the flesh” (398).  It is the knowledge of one who has “fallen away from the light of the knowledge of God” (398).  “For whenever the mind is drawn away by the senses, it also eats the food of beasts with them.  But when the senses are drawn by the mind, they partake together with it of the sustenance of angels” (144).  This matter of what is drawing and what is being drawn is critical in discerning first versus second degree knowledge.  The senses yank around the mind in the first degree, but the mind begins to reign in and control the senses in the second degree.

However, first degree of knowledge is not evil in and of itself.  It is merely the knowledge of the body and the lower calculating aspect of the soul uncontrolled by the higher, “rational” aspect of the soul and unguided by faith (360). When one falls away from faith and the fear of God through desire for pleasure and comfort, one is then left with only this first degree of knowledge, and cannot “enter into incomprehensible matters” (397).  Those stuck in this first degree “know not that there is something better… because they measure their discipline according to the standard of the ear and the flesh” (397). Thus they are become as “mindless beasts,” rejecting natural knowledge and the faith that is revealed through it.  St. Isaac points us to the psalmist who says: “Man being in honour did not understand; he was compared to the senseless cattle, and became like them” ( 360; c.f. Psalm 48:13 LXX).  Functioning in this first degree of knowledge, a man does not fear God, he fears only death (438), and he measures himself only by the satisfaction of his flesh and “according to the standard of the ear”: the scuttlebutt of the current trend, fashion, prejudice or wisdom of the age.

The Third Degree
St. Isaac mentions two specific virtues that both create the conditions for and manifest the presence of the third degree of knowledge. These virtues are humility and love.  Humility enables the theoria that begins to be experienced in the second degree of knowledge to beget another, second kind a faith, a faith that St. Isaac calls a “confirming” faith, a faith of seeing (361; c.f. Job 42:5).  That is, one begins to see, or perceive directly, the divine reality that one had only “heard” of before.  

However, to see, one must acquire humility: “By humility, true knowledge makes perfect the soul of those who have acquired it” (397).  This humility makes one “worthy” of “diverse theorias and divine revelations, by the lofty vision of spiritual things” (397). “Humility attains to divine vision because of her continual self-constraint”(144).  As a gift of God, one “sees,” or experiences directly, “perfect rest” [from labouring in virtue], “consolation, words in the heart, awareness, delight, fruition of the soul, burning love, joy in God, and whatsoever things…are bestowed on a soul counted worthy of yonder blessedness, whatsoever things are subtly indicated in the divine scriptures” (395).  As knowledge begins to be led by this faith of seeing, or as this “faith swallows up knowledge…it begets it anew”; knowledge is “converted” by this faith (399).  This is the third degree of knowledge, a knowledge converted and born again by being “swallowed up” by the faith of the direct knowledge of or experience of God.  Knowledge “becomes wholly and completely spirit” (399).

St. Isaac emphasizes that this spiritual knowledge is in no way the product of human cognition: “Take care,” he says, “lest you think in any wise that a man receives that other, spiritual knowledge through this merely human knowledge of ours…. Not even an inkling of it can be perceived by those who are zealous to train themselves in such knowledge” (500,1).  Therefore he exhorts: “Take refuge in weakness and simplicity.”  And, “If…you wish to pass your life in [spiritual knowledge], by no means encourage your feeble deliberations” (502).

Humility not only precedes this third degree of knowledge, this faith of seeing; but the third degree of knowledge also manifests God-like humility—which may be near to some of what the Holy Fathers in the Greek tradition refer to when they speak of theosis: “Wherefore every man has put on Christ when he is clothed in the raiment [of humility] wherein the Creator was seen through the body that He put on” (535). “For humility is the raiment of the Godhead…every man who has been clothed with it has truly been made like unto Him” (534).  “And if she [humility] becomes ours, she will make us sons of God” (484).  

As lofty as humility is in the eyes of St. Isaac, he is very clear that humility grows in us as we grow in our knowledge of our weakness which we gain through striving and falling through temptation and striving again to keep God’s commandments, which is the work of virtue (363, 503).  “Virtue,” he says, “is the mother of mourning, and from mourning humility is born, and upon humility a gift is bestowed.  Therefore the recompense is not for virtue, nor for toil on account of virtue, but for humility that is born of both” (422).  It strikes me as profoundly ironic yet deeply real and true that, as St. Isaac sees it, one is clothed in “the very raiment of the Godhead” through one’s falls, through the struggle and tears and ‘falling down and getting back up again' of our Christian struggle for virtue in this world.   

However, there is another, perhaps even more important mark of the third degree of knowledge:  love.  “Love, however, raises him above nature and the struggle, the fear, [and] the toil [;] and the weariness in all things passes away from him.”  In the second degree of knowledge, one is motivated to repentance and virtue by the fear of God, which is the awareness of coming judgement (438).  Yet loving one’s neighbour as virtue, that is, doing the loving thing by your neighbour, is not the same thing as actually having love in your heart for your neighbour.  Similarly, attaining virtue is not the same as loving God, although it is preliminary. Or we might say virtue is the fertile field in which love of God (and neighbour) grows.

The “clear sign,” St. Isaac says, that “the image of the heavenly Father will be seen in” someone is when compassionate action moves you to compunction of heart so that “you are full of mercy for all mankind, and that your heart is afflicted by the intensity of your pity for men and burns as with fire, without making distinctions between persons.” (552). And he says elsewhere, “By the superabundant outpouring of their love and compassion upon all men [the perfected saints] resemble God…. This sign of complete likeness to God [is]: to be perfect in the love of their neighbour” (493). Here love is not a virtue, nor does one strive to do virtuous (loving) actions; rather, in the third degree of knowledge, love burns and pierces one’s heart—which of course results in loving actions, but not as labours, but as compelled by the love burning in one’s heart.

The virtuous person, on the other hand, functioning in the second degree of knowledge and motivated by awareness of judgement (i.e. fear of God), is constantly experiencing a “pricking of the conscience,” “an unceasing remembrance of death” (and the judgement of God) and “a certain anxiety” that one experiences as a “torment until a man departs from this life” (362).  Love, however, lifts a person above the suffering one experiences in the pursuit of virtue.  “We are among these things until we attain to love, which frees us from them all.”  And, “Until we find love, our labour [in virtue] is in the land of thorns” (358).  Moving from fear of God to love, is both the means to and the fruit of the third degree of knowledge. 

Once one has acquired love in the third degree of knowledge, on the human level, mercy, kindness, generosity and all other virtues are no longer something striven for, but flow freely, without labour.  And toward God,  “the soul then rushes forward…on the wings of faith…taking leave of visible creation, and as though drunken, she is ever found in the awestruck wonder of solicitude for God; and with simple, uncompounded vision, and with invisible perception of the Divine nature, the understanding becomes accustomed to attending to reflection upon that nature’s hiddenness” (401).  All fear is gone, and we run like children into the arms of our Father.

What begins as theoria in the second degree of knowledge, arising from a virtuous way of life as “the appetitive part is fixed in a natural state of health”(469), becomes “more refined” as glimmers of experience proper to the third degree of knowledge begin to dawn in one’s heart.  Theoria , one’s inner life, “acquires that which is of the Spirit, and comes to resemble the life of the unseen hosts which perform their liturgy not by the palpable activity of works, but through…the meditation of the understanding” (398,9).  Here a person perceives the mysteries of God personally and directly through divine theoria, and here all fear is lost, or is rather “swallowed up by love” : “But when a man has reached the knowledge of the truth by the active perception of the mysteries of God and becomes steadfast in his hope in things to come, he is swallowed up by love” (438).

Using the tripartite image of a whole human being, body, soul and spirit, St. Isaac likens the first degree of knowledge to the body, which must be kept in subjection to the soul.  When the body is kept in subjection by the soul, one begins to experience the second degree of knowledge, which he likens to the soul itself.  The second, natural, degree of knowledge is enlightened by the first gift of faith (the faith of hearing) producing the fear of God, or awareness of God and His judgement.  This compels one to the practice of virtue and the contemplation of created things (theoria of created things and God’s judgement).  As one grows in humility through the trials, afflictions and failures in the pursuit of virtue in the second degree of knowledge, a second faith (the faith of seeing) enlightens one to ascend to the spirit, the third degree of knowledge.  Here, through the divine theoria of unseen and immaterial (heavenly) things and through love, one is freed from fear of God (c.f.395 - 401).

But nowhere, as indicated above, does St. Isaac use the word theosis.  It is apparently not part of his vocabulary.  Neither does the Saint use the language of participation in his description of the highest levels of our human calling to know God and become like Christ.  Nevertheless, the idea of theosis is found in St. Isaac’s writings.  However, instead of the language of participation with God, St. Isaac prefers to speak of the acquisition of humility and being consumed by love.  And this, then, has been the purpose of this presentation: to show through an introduction to St. Isaac’s three degrees of knowledge that he does speak of becoming sons of God by grace, albeit not using the technical language commonly used in the Greek patristic tradition.

And yet, to attempt to parse out St. Isaac’s teaching on any topic as though neat formulae can be deduced from his writings is to betray him.  St. Isaac is a mystic and a poet, a man who speaks of the journey he himself has traveled and the mysteries he himself has known.  Nonetheless, as an aid to our weakness, I have constructed an awkward schematic of his teaching on the progress of the Christian to Christlikeness.  I have both introduced you to St. Isaac and misrepresented him to you.  To know St. Isaac you must read him yourself—but not with the information-seeking mind of the first degree of knowledge, nor even with the rational mind of the second.  St. Isaac lives as a saint in the heavenly reality and he himself must help us understand.  We must come to him in a way that approaches the third degree of knowledge, humbled by our weakness and ignorance and pierced by love for every creature.  Here St. Isaac himself teaches us not with words, but in silence, “the mystery of the age to come” (467).

We must also understand that although these three degrees of knowledge represent a kind of progression, they by no means represent distinct steps or states or experiences.  Movement from the knowledge of the flesh to natural knowledge is not like crossing a line: it is not as though one moment you are on one side of the line and the next moment you are on the other side.  Rather, the progression that St. Isaac seem to be envisioning is more like a sunrise.  The light of a higher knowledge begins to dawn even while we are still surrounded by the darkness of a baser perception of reality.  

And even as the light of a higher knowledge shines with noonday brightness, still there are shadows, still there are animal appetites and broken memories and demonic arrows that assail us, sometimes, it seems, like the constant dripping of a rainy day.  Throughout his homilies, St. Isaac warns us never to think we have arrived.  The greatest ascetics fall, how much more must we then be aware of our own shadows. But even a fall, even a great fall is not the end.  St. Isaac tells us that a great fall, if we confess our sin, then even this can be the beginning of a new humility, a new knowledge of the mystery of God’s love.

And so, to sum up using the words of St. Isaac: “The carnal man fears [death] as a beast fears slaughter; the rational man fears the judgement of God; but the man who has become a son is adorned by love and is not caught by the rod of fear” (438).  Or to quote one of St. Isaac’s many allegories:
As it is not possible to cross over the great ocean without a ship, so no one can attain to love without fear.  This fetid sea, which lies between us and the noetic paradise, we can cross with the boat of repentance, whose oarsmen are those of fear.  But if the oarsmen of fear do not pilot this barque of repentance wherewith we cross over the sea of this world to God, we shall be drowned in the fetid sea.  Repentance is the ship, and fear is the pilot; love is the divine haven.  Thus fear sets us in the ship of repentance, transports us over the foul sea of this life (that is, of the world), and guides us to the divine port, which is love (359). 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Finding A Spiritual Father

Elder Porphyrios
I received an e-mail yesterday from someone asking advice on how to find a spiritual father.  I had to tell him that finding a spiritual father, in one sense, is very difficult and may take a lifetime.  In fact, if by finding a spiritual father he means that he is looking for a relationship with a spiritual mentor that is like what one reads about in the Philokalia or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, or in the Ladder of Divine Ascent, then I would have to say that it is almost impossible to find a spiritual father. On the other hand, and in another sense, it is very easy to find a spiritual father or mother.  Finding a spiritual mentor in this sense has mostly to do with the seeker’s humility and willingness to be taught, and much less to do with the qualifications of the potential mentor.   Let me explain:

In the writings of the Holy Fathers, especially the ancient Fathers, we are given as examples to be emulated the many stories of absolute and unquestioning obedience of novices to their spiritual fathers.  We are told stories of holy men who submitted unquestioningly and with profound humility to spiritual fathers and who themselves became saints because of that humble submission.  We are told of clairvoyant elders, full of love for their spiritual children, who unerringly guided their spiritual children on the path to godlikeness, and we are told of spiritual children suffering harsh consequences as a result of disobeying their spiritual mentors.  This tradition of discipleship under a wise and experienced spiritual guide (father or mother as the case may be) is an essential part of our Orthodox Christian tradition and a necessary aspect of our growth and transformation into godliness.

However, this way of spiritual fatherhood is much misunderstood these days and consequently--even if unintentionally--sometimes results in unhealthy relationships and even spiritual abuse.  In such cases, instead of helping one grow in Christ, a inappropriate or misunderstood relationship with someone whom you consider to be a spiritual father or mother (or with someone who presents themselves as a spiritual father or mother) can result in prolonged spiritual infancy, years of confusion or anger, and even in one turning away from Christ completely.  

The fruit of this misunderstood or misapplied teaching about spiritual fatherhood began to be most clearly seen for the first time in eighteenth and nineteenth century Russia.  And it was in response to the abuse and suffering that he both experienced and saw that St. Ignatius Bianchaniov published in St. Petersburg in 1867 his Offering to Contemporary Monasticism.  The English translation of this text, first published in 1970, is called The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life.  It has been reprinted several times in English, the latest being 2012 by Holy Trinity Publications.  

Anyone who is serious about finding a spiritual father or mother must—and I really mean must—read this book.  What I am about to say about finding a spiritual father or mother has been influenced largely by this book, although I do not follow his exact presentation.  Some of what I am about to say is also influenced by my own experience and the wisdom I have picked up here and there from people much smarter than I.

First, when we are seeking a spiritual father or mother, we must realize that we live in a very different world from the world that produced the holy Fathers and Mothers we read about in the ancient spiritual writings of our Church.  St. Ignatius goes so far as to say (and I’m paraphrasing here) that there are no spiritual fathers any more—at least not like those that we read of in, for example, the Ladder of Divine Ascent or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers or the Rule of St. Benedict.  I don’t know if I can agree completely with St. Ignatius here.  There may indeed be one or two or three holy men or women hidden throughout the world—men and women who shine with the Divine Energies of God, who pray without ceasing and who are permeated by the love of God.  I still believe (or at leas hope) that there are a few such very holy people in the world today.  However, that is just the point in this paragraph: if there are any such very holy men or women worthy of complete obedience, if there are any in the world today, they are very few and they are hidden, devoting their life to prayer.

Such holy people are very hard to find.  They hide on purpose.  And what if you or I were to find one such holy person.  Would we at all understand him or her?  Would this saint at all understand us?  Really, It seems rather foolish to me—and perhaps it will to you once you think about it for a minute—to think that I as a busy person living in the world could indeed be helped much by a man or woman who has lived in constant prayer for the past forty years.  And if we were to meet such a person and were to confess our struggle, lets say, with watching too much TV or not always saying our morning prayers, gossiping about a fellow employee, what would you expect this holy monk to give you as advice other than the words of Jesus: “Well, if you want to be perfect, sell all you have and give the money to the poor and come and live in the cave just around the corner from me for the rest of your life and you will cure your problem with gossip.”

The reality is that this indeed would cure your problem with gossip, but unless you are yourself called to the eremitical life (the life of a hermit), it is a medicine much too strong for you.   And if you tried to follow this advice as a person not called to the eremitical life, you would indeed experience a great deal of spiritual harm.  But what other advice could this holy hermit give you?  It is indeed the pathway that he or she has found to salvation.  It is what he or she knows works.  And it is the perfect advice for someone who is called to be a hermit.  

And this we often forget when we read the Philokalia or some other holy writings of our Church.  These were written mostly by monks for monks or sometimes even by hermits for hermits.  Sure there is much people in the world can learn from these writings, but great humility and discernment is needed.  Advice designed for monks living in the desert of Scetes (for example) in fifth century Egypt has to be adjusted and modified to apply in a healthy way to someone living in the world today.  

It is just like medicine.  The same dose of medicine that would cure a 200 pound healthy adult might kill a infant.  We must be very aware of our immature and weakened spiritual state and the calling of our lives in the world when we seek to apply spiritual medicine that has been prescribed for mature spiritual men and women called to monastic life.

And this is the second problem we run into when we are looking for a spiritual father or mother:  We tend to have a much too high view of ourselves and of our needs as spiritual children.  This pride (or in the best case scenario, just plain ignorance) leads us to think that we need someone like St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. Herman of Alaska or (from the lofty heights of my own imaginings at one time) St. Pacomius the Great or his holy disciple St. Theodore to be our spiritual father.  We wrongly think that only such a holy person could ever guide us on the path to Christlikeness.  But the reality is that if we cannot be guided by people God has already put in our life, then we are fooling ourselves to think that a more holy spiritual father or mother would make all of the difference for us.  

Remember, Jesus did say, “he who is faithful in little will be found faithful in much.”  If we can’t be faithful in the little spiritual guidance God has already put in our life, how can we expect not to be singed by the white-hot holiness of a truly holy saint?  Humility is called for: humility and discernment.

And this I think is the third matter that has to be addressed in looking for a spiritual father or mother: humble discernment.  My bishop once wisely said that it is the responsibility of each of us to listen carefully and respectfully to those God has placed in our lives as teachers, priests, parents and mentors.  However, it is also our responsibility to separate, or discern, what is useful to us in what they say and in the example of their life, keeping and emulating those things which we find helpful; and then, to politely ignore the rest.  

Our problem, or at least my problem, is that what I think I want is a relationship with a spiritual father or mother that is fool proof, infallible, that does not require any engagement on my part other than mere mechanical obedience.  But such a relationships does not exist: at least not as a life-giving relationship between a spiritual father and son.  Such a mechanical relationship can lead to nothing but death. We are not machines.

The element missing in our misconceived understanding of a longed-for relationship with a very holy spiritual father or mother is love.  The reason why absolute obedience was possible and healthy among the holy Fathers we read about is that they loved absolutely.  In addition to holiness and humility, love permeated every aspect of the relationship of the spiritual father with his son.  And in the rare cases when the spiritual father was deranged, it was the holiness, humility and love of the spiritual son that drew the Grace of God to that relationship.  Holiness, humility and love: that’s what makes all of the difference.  

But the problem is that I am not very holy, humble or loving; and that’s the reason why I have to start small.  We all have to start where we are and with those God has already put in our life.  If we can humble ourselves and listen for what is life-giving and helpful in the advice given by those already in our lives, we might come to be able to hear what is life-giving from those God may bring into our lives in the future.  

I am a big believer in pilgrimages and monastery visits.  I think everyone should have a monastery that they consider their own, a place they visit often and support financially and pray for daily.  And who knows, maybe in such a monastery one might even find a spiritual father or mother who can effectively guide them in the spiritual life.  However, one thing is certain: if you cannot already submit to and gain good advice and help from the people God has already put in your life—sorting out what is life-giving for you and politely ignoring what isn’t—then you will certainly not find good spiritual guidance in a monastery or even on the Holy Mountain or even from a genuine God-bearing elder (were you to find one).  You will not find good spiritual advice not because it is not there, but because you have not trained yourself to hear it.  You have not begun by hearing the small wisdom God has given to those who are already in your life so that you can slowly grown to hear wisdom from those who are more spiritually advanced. 

I have personally known several people who have gone for confession and spiritual counsel to people who have the reputation of being spiritual elders.  Some have come back from this experience helped, encouraged and strengthened.  Others, going to the very same spiritual fathers, have had their lives torn apart and spent years in confusion and frustration.  This matter of spiritual fatherhood is a very dangerous business.  

You know, we all want a short cut, a failsafe way to heaven.  And I think many of us have imagined that finding a truly holy spiritual father or mother would provide that way.  But there are no short cuts in the spiritual life.  We all, each of us, must humble ourselves and both submit to others and take responsibility for our own life.  It is the tension, or better the breathing of our spiritual life: inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale; inhale (submit humbly), exhale (discern humbly); inhale (submit humbly), exhale (discern humbly).  This is the spiritual life.  Only to inhale or only to exhale is death.  But to grow in Christ, we must breathe.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

On Rowing Boats And Farming Our Souls

“The Word of God…judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4: 12)

“There are good thoughts, and good volitions; there are evil thoughts and an evil heart” (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 6).

One of the themes in St. Isaac’s homilies is the changeableness of our experience.  Even the greatest and holiest monk experiences change against his or her will.  We live in a dying body, a body constantly changing, a body that influences our mood, our thoughts and feelings.  And although we can discipline the body and train it to a certain extent to be our servant, still we cannot completely conform our bodies to our wills.  For example, one cannot will not to get sick; and once sick, one cannot will oneself to have the energy to do what you would like to do (what you will to do) if your body does not have the energy to to it.  Similarly, you cannot attend to God in prayer with a migraine headache, when pain fills your entire consciousness and you can’t even think to will anything.  

And this changeability goes beyond the matter of sickness, it extends to matters of our chemical and hormonal makeup.  Depression is often triggered in us by imbalances in our chemistry.  Not enough sleep, too much or too little of certain foods, political or tragic events we hear about, all such things change our bodies and effect our minds in ways that change us and make it difficult for us to live, act and relate to God according to our volition.  Thoughts often come to us inspired by environmental triggers (things we hear, see, smell, etc.), triggers that we have no direct control over.  Memories of past sins—perpetrated by us or against us—appear in our minds without warning.  These memories rush upon us again suddenly and with all of the images, arguments and emotions that we thought we had dealt with long ago.  At the very moment of prayer, when you feel that you are finally praying or acting in some way in your relationship with God or with others according your good intentions, according to how you will to express your love and faithfulness to God, in that very moment of apparent success, suddenly thoughts and their attendant emotions overwhelm you.  In that moment, it seems, it feels like, all is lost.  You cannot fight off the thoughts—or your attempts to fight off the thoughts completely distract you from prayer or from whatever other good you had been attending to at that moment.

And then there are the concrete circumstances of our lives: who we live with, how much wealth or other resources we have at our disposal and our social standing (at work, in the church, in broader society) all play a part in limiting and influencing to what degree we can and cannot act on and fulfill the good volitions of our heart.  A job that demands long hours and is physically exhausting limits the amount of time one can spend in hidden prayer and meditation on Holy Scripture.  No matter how much one’s heart longs to rise early to pray, one may not be able to do so if he or she is caring for small children day and night.  Life is changeable.  It is a rough sea that we must row across, knowing that sometimes the wind or the waves will be against us and other times the sea will be calm, and sometimes, circumstances will work even in our favour.  What is important is that we row, that our intention stays fixed in repentance, in following Christ, in striving to bring every thought captive to obedience to Christ—even when the wind is blowing and the sea is raging and we cannot seem to capture any thought whatsoever, but rather we seem to be completely caught by unwanted and unruly thoughts.

It is good to know that even great saints like St. Isaac experienced changeability in their pursuit of God.  St. Isaac is writing his homilies for hermit monks, men and women who have completely devoted their lives to God in prayer in the desert—as far away from distraction as possible.  And yet St. Isaac says to these hermits, “The soul does not have rest from the movement of changing thoughts.”  Not until we shed this body of death and are clothed only with Christ will we be able to bring our thoughts fully under the control of our hearts.  And although a hermit may find some relief in “the still air of freedom which gathers the mind for a long span of time by forgetting all earthly things,”  those of us who are “newly come forth from the intricate bonds of the passions by repentance” are like young birds whose feathers have not yet formed, who cannot yet take flight, and who “hop upon the face of the earth where the serpent slithers.”  

For most of my readers, I am not telling you anything new.  If you have tried with any fervour and for any length of time to follow Christ with your whole heart then you know: try as you might, your thoughts and feelings, moods and emotions just do not follow your heart as well as you want, as you would will it, according to your volition.  So why am I telling you this?  Why does St. Isaac tell the hermits these things?  I believe St. Isaac says these things to us because we forget.  In seasons when things are easy, we forget.  When it is relatively easy to do the good that the good intention of our hearts is guiding us to do, then we can develop a kind of pride.  We can think that doing good is merely a matter of our willing to do good.  The test for whether or not this is a species of pride comes when things get hard again.  When I can’t keep my eyes open in prayer, when I find myself yelling in anger when I meant only to speak kindly, when I cannot give to God what I want to give Him, what is His due.  At that moment, do I feel that I have somehow lost God’s favour?  Do I think that God loves me less?  Am I afraid that God has rejected me?  Such thoughts often come from wounded pride. 

St. Isaac says that it’s “in proportion to the extent of [our good intention or volition]—and not according to the movement of the thoughts—the recompense for good and evil is meted out.”  God knows our circumstances. God knows the weakness of our bodies and the craziness of the world we live in and the web of relationships we are tied to.  God knows.  God knows our thoughts and God also knows our intentions, our volition.  And God rewards us according to that, according to what we are striving to do and be, not according to the mess we often actually turn out to be.  The test of the farmer is not that he labours in the field when the weather is agreeable, but that he labours in all weather.  Similarly, in our life in Christ we must labour to know Him, to love Him and to love those God has brought into our lives even when—especially when—it is hard to do so.  The results are in God’s hands.  The farmer cannot make the sun shine or the rain fall or the crops grow.  The farmer can only labour to prepare the soil, pull the weeds and plant the seed, getting things ready for when God is ready.  

God sees our hearts.  He knows our intentions.  And God’s love for us never changes.  When we appear to succeed in our spiritual life, God loves us.  When we appear to fail, God loves us.  “He knows our frame and considers that we are but dust,” as the psalmist says.  We may be a mess, but we are God’s mess.  And He loves us.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Growing Up In God

One of the difficult transitions or junctures of the spiritual life is the movement between what St. Isaac the Syrian calls the second and third degrees of knowledge.  Keep in mind that the language of degrees is metaphorical.  It describes spiritual experience and ways of encountering and knowing God.  

Many of us have gone through seasons of our life in which we have striven with great intention and zeal to do and be what we thought and/or were taught was obedient to God.  We attended church regularly—maybe whenever the door was open.  We said our prayers.  We were scrupulous about activities: what we ate and didn’t eat, who we spent our time with, how we dressed, where we went, what we did or didn’t do, etc.  However, with this fervour of righteous activity and focus came a certain expectation.  Some have gone through such a season with an expectation that they would see a miracle.  Others have expected that they would become more spiritual (in a way that they would perceive and recognize).  Others have expected that they would experience Grace in a form that would erase doubt from their minds or make some difficult aspect of their life easier to bear.  Others have expected that such effort would save them from calamity or failure in school, business or relationships.  

However, what often happens is that our expectations go unfulfilled.  There is no miracle—at least not the miracle we wanted.  We do not seem to be more spiritual—we struggle more than ever with temptations and weaknesses.  Doubt increases; calamity strikes; businesses and relationships fail.  What is going on?  Why does God seem to abandon us when we have tried so hard to follow Him?

I would like to suggest that the problem lies not with God but with us, with our expectation of what spiritual growth and Grace active in our life will look like.  Early in our spiritual life, or at a foundational stage of our spiritual life (what St. Isaac would refer to as the movement from the first to the second degree of knowledge), we begin to become aware of the reality of God through our careful observation or contemplation of the world around us (including the religious world we find ourselves in).  This awareness leads us to action motivated by what is often called the fear of God, or the awareness that God is real and that it behooves me to do what God says—in whatever ways I may understand it means in my particular circumstance or place in life.  This conformity to what I think or am taught that God says or wants of me is called striving for virtue.  

However, it is in the striving for virtue that an important but subtle shift has to take place if we are going to move from the second to the third degree of knowledge.  In the second degree of knowledge, our conceptions of what God expects of us and what we expect of God are based on our reflection on created things and result in an almost legalistic paradigm.  That is, we can come to expect that if we fulfill certain obligations (things we do or do not do), then God will bless the material aspect of our lives in certain desirable ways.  However, this is a very business-like relationship with God, a relationship like that of the older brother with his Father in the parable of the prodigal son.  Nevertheless, it does seem to be a necessary stage or degree of one's growing relationship with God, and it is certainly a step up from the complete selfishness and spiritual ignorance of living only according to one's calculating mind and animal passions.

This business-like relationship with God seems to lead to at least four possible outcomes (that I can think of).  One is pride.  If one has the wealth and the religious or societal standing to maintain an image of him or her self as successful, then one develops pride in having done the right things to please God and thus receiving His blessing.  For example, there was a time in my Christian journey when I was part of a community that taught explicitly that the reason why America was so wealthy was because God was blessing America for all of the missionaries supported by Christians in the U.S.  This may seem like an extreme example (especially to those who are not Americans), but this same arrogance and semi-intentional blindness can and does take place on family and personal levels too.  Many self-help books are saturated in this arrogance: 'just apply these seven principles to a happy family (or successful career, or well-managed wealth, or even a more fulfilling spiritual life), apply these principles and you will succeed.'  And if you do succeed, if your expectations are met, then you can become so proud as to think that you have brought this success on yourself and that you know why others are not so successful: it’s their own fault: they are too lazy or stupid or sinful to do what needs to be done.

The next three possible outcomes of the business-like relationship with God are either guilt, anger or humility.  Many of us do not have the wealth or luck or societal standing to maintain an illusion of success.  Or some of us are just plain honest.  We reject the illusions we might hide behind to accept the cold reality that despite our sincere efforts at pleasing God, the specific outcomes we had expected did not materialize.  And here we tend to have one of the three responses—or maybe all three at once as we are confused and struggle within ourselves, not knowing what to do or how to respond.  On the one hand we feel broken, on the other hand we feel betrayed.  We don’t want to blame God, so we blame ourselves or, like Job, we cannot deny that we did indeed try with all of our might—or at least most of our might—to do the right thing, to pray and fast and behave as we should.  This experience is like a crucible, a pressure cooker that renders us to the core of our being, stripping away all of the layers of falsehood and imaginations to lay bare what is really there.  It is the experience of Job.

Many of us have gone through such experiences of disappointment with God and come out of it bitter and angry.  This anger generally does not express itself as rage.  No, rather, it is like a calm determination in those who are strong, in those who have the means (intelligence, wealth or societal connections) to make their own choices, to bring about their own blessings, leaving God pretty much out of the picture all together.  In others, in those who are dependent, who do not have (or do not perceive that they have) much power to make their own choices or their own way in the world, for these, anger at God often takes the form of depression and self-destructive behaviour.  Anger, whether of the cold, determined kind or of the depressive, self-destructive kind, maintains its hold on us through a stream of endless inner chatter.  Self-talk, justifying and arguing, blaming and accusing, becomes the endless soundtrack of our mind.  Our self-talk convinces us and reassures us that we are right, that we are justified, that we are victims and that it is not our fault.  And this chorus can at times chant so loudly in our mind that we cannot listen to anyone who might suggest a different version of the story.

Some of us struggle with guilt. When life does not turn out the way we expect, we often experience an overwhelming burden of guilt.  Sometimes we can think of specific failures or areas of our life where we could have / should have / might have done better.  But guilt doesn't need any specific cause.  Just the fact that life isn't working out the way we expected causes us to assume, not only that it is our fault, but more importantly, that if we had worked harder, paid closer attention or prayed more fervently, things would have turned out better.  In a sense, guilt is a species of pride.  It comes from having a business-like relationship with God that assumes that we could have (if we had tried harder, etc.) fulfilled our end of the bargain with God. The fact that things are not turning out as we expected becomes evidence for us that we obviously failed God in some significant way.  In my experience, guilt can only be healed by humility and leaving behind a business-like relationship with God.

But, thank God, neither anger nor depression nor guilt are necessarily permanent.  They can be transformed.  They can be transformed into humility.  Sometimes, it seems, we have to rage, or pout or feel guilty for a while, before we come to our senses, before we figure out that we are only hurting ourselves and that God is silently waiting for us to return to the silence.  In silence, everything gives way to humility, the humility of a broken and contrite heart, the humility of a child who has had a good cry after not getting what she wanted, a cry in the arms of her Father.  And it is this humility that brings us into the third degree of knowledge, the love of God that swallows the fear of God.  It brings us to the knowledge of God beyond consideration of created things, the knowledge of God that can say with Job: “even if he slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15).

The Apostle Paul said that he had learned in all things to be content, whether he abounds or is abased (Phil. 4:12).  This is the movement from the second to the third degree of the knowledge of God.  In the third degree we enter the silence, the silence of abasement, the silence of not knowing, the silence of not understanding.  Here we come to know God in a different way, a way not tied to the created reality, in a way not dependent on whether or not things go my way, not dependent on whether or not my priest or bishop is as holy as he should be, not dependent on whether or not God meets my expectations of what a relationship with Him should be like.  Learning to know God in the silence is deification, it is a transfiguration that makes us shine with a light from another world, a light that makes the huts of this world seem irrelevant (c.f. Matt. 17:4).  But it is a difficult and on-going transition.  That is, throughout our lives we are continually encountering disappointment, abasement abounds, you might say.  Like Cain, sin is always crouching at the door and we must overcome it again and again (c.f. Gen. 4: 7).  

And while moving from anger or depression or guilt to humility is never easy, with practice it does, nonetheless, become more predictable.  With practice, you begin to notice the signs in yourself, the unhealthy self-talk, the cooling of your love, the intentional ignoring of God.  You recognize the signs and you take a deep breath.  OK.  I know what’s happening.  Lord have mercy.  And then you struggle to enter the rest, to return to the silence, to the place where can you let go of disappointment and let go of expectation.  There are generally tears along the way, which are sometimes preceded by a Job-like argument with God.  But in the end, we know the drill.  We have been to Gethsemane before, although each time is unique, each struggle breaks a different part of our hard, stubborn hearts.  But if we return and wait, wait until all false hopes wither, there is peace.  There is the knowledge of the love and nearness of God.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Lukewarm Christians

In my last blog post, I spoke about the middle way, the way of spiritual discipline that does not err to the left (too lax) or to the right (too strict).  Barbara, one of my regular commenters, asked me to speak a little about this in the light of the warning in the book of Revelation not to be “lukewarm” lest God spit us out (3:15-17).  I can see how one can easily be confused by this warning in the light of the teaching of the Holy Fathers and Mothers that we pursue Christ by avoiding extremes to the left and to the right.

To begin with, I think one’s spiritual temperature has less to do with the specific disciplines and activities or virtues one practices than it has to do with one’s attitude when one practices them.  In the text from Revelation, Christ tells the Laodicean Christians (the lukewarm ones) the reason why he says they are lukewarm.  Let’s look at the passage:

And to the angel [or pastor/bishop] of the church of the Laodiceans write, “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: ‘I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I could wish that your were [either] cold or hot.  So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked”’.

The lukewarmness of the Laodiceans does not have to do with any specific “work” that the Laodiceans are or are not doing—“I know your works,” the Amen says to them.  The problem isn’t the works, it’s the attitude:  They think that they or their works are sufficient.  They think they have more than enough of all they need.  And they do not realize how poor, sick, blind and wretched they really are.  This is what it means to be lukewarm: to think that you have enough, that your are all right, or that you have things pretty much under control spiritually speaking.  

Someone suffering from this malady of lukewarmness might be very diligent in certain pious practices and spiritual disciplines, or she might not be disciplined at all.  The sickness is not necessarily manifest in any specific outwardly identifiable behaviour.  It is the sickness that many of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church call “self-esteem.”  

We live in a culture in which self-esteem is considered a good thing and to have low self esteem is to be in need of psychological help.  While low self-esteem is not an issue addressed by the Fathers or Mothers of the Church (at least not that I know of), I do concede that it is nonetheless a genuine malady suffered by some—especially by those who have been psychologically damaged by severe physical and emotional abuse.  However, genuine low self-esteem is very uncommon in my experience (and I have been around a lot of abused people—I myself was raised in foster homes and institutions).  In my experience, anger expressed in passive-aggressive behaviour is a much more common malady among those who have been abused than is genuine low self-esteem.

But even then, even defining self-esteem is difficult.  The problem with defining self-esteem is that we live in a culture that considers self promotion, self praise, and fighting to get ahead to be normal, healthy expressions of personhood.  Any man, woman or child who does not push to be first or rush to assert her opinion, or fight to defend his turf is judged by the social and psychological gurus of our age to suffer from low self-esteem.  However, from the perspective of the Church Fathers and Mothers, these are manifestations  of a spiritual disease, a disease that they often refer to as “self-esteem.”  

This, I think, was the problem of the Laodiceans, this is what I think made them lukewarm: they had (too much) self-esteem.  They were full (of themselves).  They were rich (on their own—the same problem St. Paul points to in his letter to the Corinthians [4:8] “You have reigned as kings without us”).  In fact, this is the same problem revealed in the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve wanted to become gods apart from God. 

 Most people suffer from way too much self-esteem.  We generally think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (c.f. Rom. 12:3).  Generally, we don’t think we have much or anything at all to repent of.  Most people, even believes, and especially this believer, sometimes, live as though God did not exist, as though God were irrelevant, as though whatever may happen next in my life will or will not happen because of what I do or do not do.  Again, generally speaking, we don’t see ourselves as dependent creatures.  We don’t see ourselves in constant need of God’s ever-present protection.  We don’t weigh every thought, word and deed as though we will give an account at the fearsome Judgement Seat of God.  And what’s more, we generally don’t care.  This is what it means to be lukewarm.

I wish it were easy to discern whether or not, or to what degree I am lukewarm.  It is not easy at all to discern.  However, I think one principle may help us:  In as much as I am sure that I am lukewarm, I am probably not; and in as much as I am sure that I am not lukewarm, I probably am.  When we know we are sick, we seek the Physician;  when we think we are well, we do not.  And this brings us back to my last post: how do we seek the Physician, how do we find healing in a way that is effective?  The Fathers and Mothers of the Church encourage us to seek spiritual health through the practice of virtue and spiritual disciplines in a way that is neither too strict nor too lax.

How do we know the difference?  St. Isaac suggests some guideposts.  On the one hand, if you find yourself falling into lustful temptations, it may be because your discipline is too lax.  On the other hand, if you find yourself falling into despondency, then it may be that your rule is too strict.  But who can diagnose herself?  We need spiritual fathers and mothers, wise physicians of the soul to help us discern these things.  And for those of us who don’t think we need a spiritual guide, perhaps our Lord’s words to the Laodiceans apply.  We are all sick, blind, naked and wretched.  It is only the lukewarm who don’t think they are.