St. Maximos, 4th century of love, #1-25

St. Maximos begins the 4th century with contemplation of God’s creation and the humbling of the intellect before it.

 “First the intellect marvels when it reflects on the absolute infinity of God, that boundless sea for which it longs so much. Then it is amazed at how God has brought things into existence out of nothing.”

St. Maximos transitions from the infinity and eternity of God’s creation to us.

We have always existed as potentiality in God’s mind “from all eternity” and

“4. When the Creator willed, He gave being to and manifested that knowledge of created things which already existed in Him.”

So what is our relationship to God’s creation and what is our purpose?

We were endowed with intelligence, he tells us. Yet,

“13. Whether or not a nature endowed with intelligence and intellect is to exist eternally depends on the will of the Creator whose every creation is good; but whether such a nature is good or bad depends on its own will.”

Evil is not “to be imputed to the essence of created beings, but to their erroneous and mindless motivation.” And our “motivation is rightly ordered when its desiring power is subordinated to self-control, when its incensive power rejects hatred and cleaves to love.”

Without love, our purpose cannot be clear and our intelligence will be diverted by evil, self-serving motivations rather than advance toward God “through prayer and spiritual contemplation.”

Take suffering, for example. How many times have times of suffering produced in us anger, self-pity, envy for others or despair that, in themselves, cut us off from love, gratitude and hope, causing us more harm than the cause of suffering itself? This is maintaining love in the face of suffering is the most important example of our ability to exert our will to make our God-given nature good as opposed to evil.

“16. If in time of trial a man does not patiently endure his afflictions, but cuts himself off from the love of his spiritual brethren, he does not yet possess perfect love or a deep knowledge of divine providence.

Thus, he who does not resolutely bear trouble, endure affliction, and patiently sustain hardship, has strayed from the path of divine love and from the purpose of providence.”

Then, there are our relationships with others. How much of our daily life is consumed by envy of others, hurt feelings from perceived insults, fears of rejections and loss of control, blame and recriminations?   Yet what use is “victory”—surpassing others in status, getting validation for wrongs against you or “putting someone in his place”—when our lives are filled with fractured relationships, anger and hatred and deprived of love?

“Has a brother been the occasion of some trial for you and has your resentment led you to hatred?’ St. Maximos asks. “22. Do not let yourself be overcome by this hatred, but conquer it with love. You will succeed in this by praying to God sincerely for your brother and by accepting his apology; or else by conciliating him with an apology yourself, by regarding yourself as responsible for the trial and by patiently waiting until the cloud has passed.”

He concludes: “18. If ‘love is long-suffering and kind’ (1 Cor. 13:4), a man who is fainthearted in the face of his afflictions and who therefore behaves wickedly towards those who have offended him, and stops loving them, surely lapses from the purpose of divine providence.”

Ultimately,

“17. The aim of divine providence is to unite by means of true faith and spiritual love those separated in various ways by vice. Indeed, the Savior endured His sufferings so that ‘He should gather together into one the scattered children of God’ (John 11: 52).”

The section ends with a seemingly simple truth that encompasses all the complex relationships between the creator and the created universe that St Maximos details in the preceding pages and the gist of his centuries of love: “Do not lightly discard spiritual love: for men there is no other road to salvation.”

St. Maximos the Confessor: 3d Century on Love Excerpts #76-100

 Our intellect lies between angel and demon, each of which works for its own ends, the one encouraging virtue and the other vice. The intellect has both the authority and the power to follow or resist whichever it wishes to.

St. Maximos understands both poles and constantly points out the thin and treacherous line between them. This is why he shows compassion for our failings and helps us both envision our destination with the angels and develop simple, practical tools for following the right path and resisting the demons.

An easy slip-up for most of us is to succumb to envy and resentment. This is how St. Maximos defines it:

Resentment is linked with rancor. When the intellect forms the image of a brother’s face with a feeling of resentment, it is clear that it harbors rancor against him. ‘The way of the rancorous

The Greek word for “rancor” is “μνησικακία”—the memory of past wrongs. Being consumed by bitterness and resentment for perceived wrongs and offenses “leads to death,” because ‘whoever harbors rancor is a transgressor’ (Prov. 21:24. LXX).

“Mνησικακία” is devoid of logic and does not always require an actual harmful act committed against us to be triggered. We can bitterly resent someone’s success because we choose to see it as a reminder of our own, perceived “failure.” We may envy someone else’s popularity or talent and resent him for it because believe we should possess them, instead, for our life to be worth living. And we may be especially intolerant of others’ flaws when they remind us of personal weaknesses we are ashamed of.

You will find it hard to check the resentment of an envious person, for what he envies in you he considers his own misfortune.

 In short, we dehumanize others by seeing them as mere commodities to compare ourselves to and benchmark our successes or failures against.  The remedy St. Maximos outlines is to separate the resentment from the thought and view others in the fulness of their humanity rather than through the filter of our passions, thus opening our hearts to compassion and love.

If you harbor rancor against anybody, pray for him and you will prevent the passion from being aroused; for by means of prayer you will separate your resentment from the thought of the wrong he has done you. When you have become loving and compassionate towards him, you will wipe the passion completely from your soul.

How many times, filled with envy and resentment, we secretly delight in another’s failures or find it impossible to be happy for their good fortune. Yet, forgetting ourselves and empathizing with those we resent is what will free us from the tyranny of these passions.

 …You will be able to check it if you rejoice with the man whom you envy whenever he rejoices, and grieve whenever he grieves, thus fulfilling St Paul’s words, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep’ (Rom. 12:15).

To choose the path of angels rather than the demons, we cannot be absolved of responsibility even when it is someone else who envies and resents our own successes. Even then,

You must in humility consider him superior to yourself, and always, everywhere and in every matter put his interest above yours…. for you are defending not the passion but the sufferer

In the end, the remedy for envy and all other passions is love:

 …but love, united beyond union with Him who is more than infinite, will remain for all eternity, always increasing beyond all measure. That is why ‘the greatest of them is love’ (1 Cor. 13:13).[V2] 100

St. Maximos, 3d century of love, #52-76

We know that the Fathers consider thoughts the source of all passions. St. Maximos gives us a detailed example here:

…as the body fornicates with the body of a woman, so the intellect, forming a picture of its own body, fornicates with the conceptual image of a woman. For in the mind it sees the form of its own body having intercourse with the form of a woman.

But surely most of us think that some situations naturally deserve to occupy our thoughts: a heinous act committed by a criminal, for example; a neighbor’s outrageous behavior; our outrage at ISIS…

St. Maximos makes no exception and warns us of the danger of becoming overtaken by passionate thoughts. First of all, our own thoughts—noble or vile, justifiable or unjustifiable—hold an appeal for us. Let’s face it, it is intoxicating to indulge in our own fantasies, ruminations, memories or fears and speculations. St. Maximos compares our relationship to our own thoughts to that between parents and children:

 … Just as parents have a special affection for the children who are the fruit of their own bodies, so the intellect naturally clings to its own thoughts. And just as to passionately fond parents their own children seem the most capable and most beautiful of all – though they may be quite the most ridiculous in every way – so to a foolish intellect its own thoughts appear the most intelligent of all, though they may be utterly degraded.

 Secondly, just like addiction becomes central to our lives, stripping away all things that truly matter and the person we once were, so does indulgence in our thoughts replace alertness, inner stillness and contemplation of God with fantasy:

He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins, which are truly heavier than a great lump of lead; nor does he know why a man becomes heavy-hearted when he loves vanity and chases after falsehood.

 These passions, then, tie the intellect to material things and drag it down to earth, pressing on it like a massive stone, although by nature it is lighter and swifter than fire.

St. Maximos has practical advice for avoiding attachment to our own thoughts:

  It is precisely when he feels convinced that they [thoughts] are true and good that he most distrusts his own judgment. He makes other wise men the judges of his thoughts and arguments – lest he should run, or may have run, in vain (cf. Gal. 2:2) – and from them receives assurance.

St. Maximos does not stop with this advice. This is where these pages get deeper and more complex.

 “Passion-free knowledge of divine things,” he admits, “does not persuade the intellect to scorn material things completely; it is like the passion-free thought of a sensible thing. It is therefore possible to find many men who have much knowledge and yet wallow in the passions of the flesh like pigs in the mire.”

St. Maximos goes beyond theory and analysis of the thought process to delve into the dynamics of human motivation and peel back the many layers of truth and faith.

Through diligent work, he says, people “temporarily cleanse themselves and attain knowledge, but then they grow negligent.”  It is not logical persuasion but the fullness of love that will give us the focus, motivation and consistency of passion-free knowledge and understanding:

 For in this world truth exists in shadows and conjectures. That is why there is need for the blessed passion of holy love, which binds the intellect to spiritual contemplation and persuades it to prefer what is immaterial to what is material, and what is intelligible and divine to what is apprehended by the senses.

St. Maximos on Love: Third Century, #26-51

 Stuck on obsessive thoughts like how to change someone’s behavior? Tired of dwelling on a perceived insult against you or sinking into self-righteousness and self-pity?   Going in circles without a clear path out?  St. Maximos totally gets you and has some answers for you.

Mental dysfunction of any kind occurs when we misuse and distort these powers against their nature. The hopeful message here is that restoring them to their natural state is within our control. Both the descent into dark passions and healing are matters of choice.   The soul functions in accordance with nature when its passible aspects – that is, its incensive power and its desire – remain dispassionate in the face of provocations both from things and from the conceptual images of these things.

It is not the external triggers that darken our souls but the passionate thoughts about them that we allow to take root within us.  Our weapon is “love and self-control” that keep the intellect dispassionate in the face both of things and of the conceptual images we form of them.”

Like the other Fathers, Maximos repeatedly conveys our vulnerability to passions and the implicit need to admit our powerlessness, as 12-step programs have found out. Only this awareness will keep us engaged in active warfare every minute of our day.

Yet it is a waste to expend our resources on fighting the triggers of our passions. Here is what St. Maximos advises us on how to conduct effecting warfare:

The intellect of a man who enjoys the love of God does not fight against things or against conceptual images of them. It battles against the passions which are linked with these images. It does not, for example, fight against a woman, or against a man who has offended it, or even against the images it forms of them; but it fights against the passions which are linked with the images.

If you are looking for a “trick”—a practical tool you can apply the moments that passionate thoughts begin to form in your mind, Maximos readily provides you with concrete tools.

When consumed by desire, envy or anger, for example, we should first separate our own impassionate thoughts from the objects that triggered them. Instead of becoming consumed with plans for witty comebacks to insults or self-pity for our inability to make our children choose the path we believe is right for them, for example, we should examine the real roots of our passions and our acquiescence to their dominance.

The whole purpose of the monk’s warfare against the demons is to separate the passions from conceptual images. Otherwise he will not be able to look on things dispassionately.

A thing, a conceptual image and a passion are all quite different one from the other. For example, a man, a woman, gold and so forth are things; a conceptual image is a passion-free thought of one of these things; a passion is mindless affection or indiscriminate hatred for one of these same things. The monk’s battle is therefore against passion.

St. Maximos, Second Century on Love (Feb. 24, 2017), Sections #26-51

Have you ever felt a sense of emptiness? Perhaps it was after bouts of anger, years of resentment or struggles to control spouse, children’s behavior others’ perceptions of you, etc. Eventually, you may have experienced the kind of hollowness that can potentially lead to despair or resignation.

St. Maximos sees this as the desolation left by sin.

First the hidden passions within us begin to surface in our thoughts. He gives examples of passions that impel us toward evil and are, hence, synonymous to sin: desiring something beyond reason; becoming consumed by anger or irritability. If they are not stopped, these thoughts become incessant, overcome the mind, turn into fantasy and eventually into action.

Then, fighting the intellect through these thoughts, they force it to give its assent to sin. When it has been overcome, they lead it to sin in the mind; and when this has been done they induce it, captive as it is, to commit the sin in action.

This is when desolation sets in. Beyond violating the sanctity of human intellect, the memory of sin remains in our soul, becoming an “idol.”

Having thus desolated the soul by means of these thoughts, the demons then retreat, taking the thoughts with them, and only the specter or idol of sin remains in the intellect. Referring to this our Lord says, ‘When you see the abominable idol of desolation standing in the holy place (let him who reads understand) . . .’(Matt. 24:15). For man’s intellect is a holy place and a temple of God in which the demons, having desolated the soul by means of impassioned thoughts, set up the idol of sin.

The opposite of this desolation brought about by passions, is perfect love.

Neither the practice of virtues nor contemplation alone can bring us to perfect love and perfect union with God without a mystical and total immersion in love for God. When we are in this state of perfect love, we are able to discern God in everything around us— not to “descry God’s inmost nature,” which is not possible, but “to discern, as far as possible, the qualities that appertain to His nature – qualities of eternity, infinity, indeterminateness, goodness, wisdom, and the power of creating, preserving and judging creatures, and so on.”

St. Maximos sums up a compelling picture of a world driven by perfect love, absent all the categories that divide us.

For him who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of dispassion there is no difference between his own or another’s, or between Christians and unbelievers, or between slave and free, or even between male and female. But because he has risen above the tyranny of the passions and as fixed his attention on the single nature of man, he looks on all in the same way and shows the same disposition to all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, bond nor free, but Christ who ‘is all, and in all’ (Col. 3:11; cf. Gal. 3:28).

Maximos sees the Trinity as the manifestation of such harmony.

When our Lord says, ‘I and My Father are one’ (John 10:30), He indicates their identity of essence. Again, when He says, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in Me’ (John 14:11), He shows that the Persons cannot be divided.

The nature of love is the nature of God and the nature of God is unity rather than fragmentation.

St. Maximus: First Century on Love, Sections #79-100

“When a sparrow tied by the leg tries to fly, it is held back by the string and pulled down to the earth. Similarly, when the intellect that has not yet attained dispassion flies up towards heavenly knowledge, it is held back by the passions and pulled down to the earth.”

Unless we achieve dispassion, St. Maximos tells us, we will be flapping our wings vainly— longing to fly but remaining stuck in place.  To achieve this dispassion,  he admonishes us to

‘Put to death therefore whatever is earthly in you: unchastity, uncleanliness, passion, evil desire and greed’

Maximos does not simply give us lists of sins to avoid and commandments to obey. He seems to be the master of nuance in drawing out cause and effect relationships among passions and  elucidating the dynamics of our perception and association with them.

Not all passions are the same. Maximos points to a synergistic relationship among them and a progression toward total immersion to sin..

Greed is the chief enabler among them and opens the floodgates for the rest of them.

Thoughts are the subtlest and, hence, most dangerous of the demons assailing us. “For the war which the demons wage against us by means of thoughts is more severe than the war they wage by means of material things.”

“Unchastity is his [St. Paul’s] word for the actual committing of sin. Uncleanness is how he designates assent to sin. Passion is his term for impassioned thoughts.”

Maximos points to our role in allowing sin into our souls by first “assenting to it, before actually committing it. .

“By evil desire,” he explains, “he [St. Paul] means the simple act of accepting the thought and the desire. And greed is his name for what generates and promotes passion.”

How many times have you caught yourself justifying something in your head or deciding to minimize its importance before you actually engage in it. “Probably health reports exaggerate the harm of smoking.”  “I know that technically the church considers it a sin but times have changed and we don’t live in the 1st century anymore.”  “It’s not the end of the world to tell a harmless little lie.”

“When the passion is not eradicated, it persuades the intellect to assent to it. Once this assent is given, the actual sin is then committed.”

Maximos then goes on to describe how our intellect will see the world when it is free of passion and “proceeds un-distracted to the contemplation of created beings, making its way towards knowledge of the Holy Trinity.”

It seems that when we are weighed down by passions, we are unable to see the true nature of things. Our r vision is blurred and often deluded. But when we reach a “pure state, the intellect, on receiving the conceptual images of things, is moved to contemplate these things spiritually.”

What does this mean? “He who has succeeded in attaining the virtues and is enriched with spiritual knowledge,” Maximos says, “sees things clearly in their true nature. Consequently, he both acts and speaks with regard to all things in a manner which is fitting, and he is never deluded.”

In other words, that which we perceive through our senses and influence by thoughts that obsess us and habitual patterns of thinking, is not true or whole. It is only “spiritual contemplation of things visible” that “casts off impassioned conceptions of such things.”

Free of passions, our intellect “…searches out either the natural principles of these things or the spiritual principles which they reflect, or else it seeks their original cause.”

Could it be then, that when we see suffering and injustice around us as irreconcilable with God’s goodness, we are not seeing the spiritual principles and true nature of things? St. Maximos tells us that in a state of perfect love our “intellect is absorbed in the contemplation of things invisible” beyond what we see or hear with our senses. Instead of doubt, envy, fear or despair, “it seeks their natural principles, the cause of their generation and whatever follows from this, as well as the providential order and judgment which relates to them.”

Notice that the topic of this essay is love and yet nowhere in these pages does one find the kind of love we recognize as love, and that is “love” as emotion. Perfect love comes out of dispassion; the absence of personal agendas, the desire to control or manipulate or the delusion of senses.  It can occur when we can finally see the true nature of things and recognize God’s light in everything around us.

When the sun rises and casts its light on the world, it reveals both itself and the things it illumines. Similarly, when the Sun of righteousness rises in the pure intellect. He reveals both Himself and the inner principles of all that has been and will be brought into existence by Him.

St. Maximos the Confessor: 400 texts on love, Sections: # 41-79

The Message: Opening or Closing the Door to Perfect Love

“For I am convinced,” St. Maximos tells us in these pages, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is God’s promise to us and the ultimate source of hope in our lives.

Yet, while the most unsurmountable physical obstacles cannot prevent us from God’s love, the obstacles that lie within us—thoughts and passions— can eventually take control of our lives and drive away God from our lives.  Dispassion is the only pathway to God’s love.

If you are not indifferent to both fame and dishonor, riches and poverty, pleasure and distress, you have not yet acquired perfect love. For perfect love is indifferent not only to these but even to this fleeting life and to death.

To be united to God, we must follow the commandments—“living  the angelic life on earth, fasting and keeping vigils, praying and singing psalms and always thinking good of every man.”

This is the synopsis of St. Maximos’ message here. Yet his focus is on how to convert this message into practice and implant it in our thoughts.  To this end, he addresses head on our possible objections and delves into human psychology, starting with motivation.

How realistic is it to love our enemies?.

St Maximos anticipates our resistance to God’s commandment to “love your enemies … do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you’ (Matt. 5:44).”  How can this be possible in real life? Could we really love the boss who fired us? The ex-husband who abused us? Corrupt politicians? How about Hitler?

St. Maximos asks the question before we do, acknowledging its “irrationality” by flawed, human standards: ‘Why did He command this?” The answer he provides is simple and commonsensical:

To free you from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor, and to make you worthy of the supreme gift of perfect love.

He continues with a reference to Matthew:

And if anyone sues you in the courts, and takes away your coat, let him have your cloak also. And if anyone forces you to go a mile, go with him for two miles’ (Matt. 5:39-41).

Why did God say this?  St. Maximos asks again and answers:

Both to keep you free from anger and irritation, and to correct the other person by means of your forbearance, so that like a good Father He might bring the two of you under the yoke of love. by

And he puts love in perspective reminding us:

St Paul says that, if we have all the gifts of the Spirit but do not have love, we are no further forward (cf. 1 Cor)

From a passion-dominated life to a life ruled by God.

Do we remember instances when we were ruled by passions such as cutting ourselves off from others because our hearts were filled with anger and resentment? When our sense of entitlement and self-pity led to depression and listlessness?  Or when we couldn’t relish the beauty of a spring day or rejoice in a child’s smile because our thoughts were obsessed with memories of offenses against us and plots of revenge?  This is the face of a life dominated by passions and cut off from love.  And it happens “when the intellect associates with evil and sordid thoughts it loses its intimate communion with God.”

 “…Fighting against the thoughts of things, St. Maximos tells us, “is much harder than fighting against the things themselves, just as to sin in the mind is easier than to sin through outward action.’

It is in our thoughts where the transition from passion-driven to God-ruled lives begins. And St. Maximos’ advice gets to the heart of the, usually unacknowledged or hidden, battles we fight daily, starting with our fragile egos and distorted perceptions of offence:

 Shun all suspicions and all persons that cause you to take offence. If you are offended by anything, whether intended or unintended, you do not know the way of peace, which through love brings the lovers of divine knowledge to the knowledge of God.

St. Maximos delves even deeper, striking at our very definition of personhood.

“You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their character,” he says. He continues: “for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason, you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person.”

At first, this is stunning. For most of us “character” is synonymous to personhood. St. Maximos corrects us, asking us to go beyond character to the image of God in all of us.

“ Perfect love does not split up the single human nature, common to all, according to the diverse characteristics of individuals; but, fixing attention always on this single nature, it loves all men equally.

And you cannot attain such love if you do not imitate God and love all men equally. For God loves all men equally and wishes them ‘to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2:4).”

St. Maximos the Confessor: 400 texts on love, Excerpts #1-41

St Maximos the Confessor (c. 580 – 662) (Volume 2, pp. 48-305) a well-educated member of the aristocracy who first served in the civil service before he became a monk around 614. From 633-4 onwards. He played a leading part in opposing the heresies of Monoenergism and Monotheletism, and because of this he was arrested in 653 by the imperial authorities, brought to Constantinople for trial, and sent into exile where he died as a result of torture.   

 St. Maximos begins this first essay with a definition of love:

Love is a holy state of the soul, disposing it to value knowledge of God above all created things.

Achieving such love is not the result of any one action but a balanced and orderly sequence of multiple forces that make our souls whole.

First comes fear of God that is “the result of faith in God.” Everything hinges on faith and is built on its foundation: Fear of punishment motivates us to control passions.  Once we, and not our passions, are in control, we can “accept affliction patiently, and through such acceptance …[we] acquire hope in God.” Hope in turn, “engenders dispassion;” and “dispassion engenders love.”

What allows us to extract and apply lessons learned and exercise discernment is our intellect. But this is only true when the intellect has the right place in the larger order and is rooted in faith.

Blessed is the intellect that transcends all sensible objects and ceaselessly delights in divine beauty… When your intellect is concentrated on the love of God you will pay little attention to visible things and will regard even your own body as something alien.

In the same vein, faith is nothing in itself if disconnected from love.

Just as the thought of fire does not warm the body, so faith without love does not actualize the light of spiritual knowledge in the soul.

 Just like individual dance steps, cut off from the larger choreography, do not constitute a dance, isolated virtues or actions do not lead to the experience of divine love. It is the constant motion of keeping in step, connecting each step to the next, maintaining balance and coordination with other dancers that constitute a dance. And it is through a similar continuous movement toward balance and integration that one experiences love.

Dispassion is a fundamental piece in this choreography and St. Maximos has the clearest and most succinct definition I have ever read.  “Dispassion,” he says simply, “is a peaceful condition of the soul in which the soul is not easily moved to evil.”   He gives us several examples. We can easily, and usually imperceptibly, allow our passions to move us to places of darkness and inner turmoil when:

  • A soul is “filled with thoughts of sensual desire and hatred”
  • There is “any trace of hatred in our hearts against any man whatsoever for committing any fault”
  • Our heart is overwhelmed with feelings of anger or irritation because of perceived insults and humiliations from others

Think of what large percentage of our days and lives is spent on ruminating over perceived insults or injustices, worrying about winning arguments or making the right impression, trying to impose our own agenda on the world around us or resenting our lives and coveting others’ lives?  These are the “worldly things” that Maximos describes as rendering us “utterly estranged from love for God,” isolate us and “place [us] in the realm of hatred.”

On the contrary, “he who has genuinely renounced worldly things, and lovingly and sincerely serves his neighbor, is soon set free from every passion and made a partaker of God’s love and knowledge.”

Maximos gives us a lyrical description of what it means to become “partaker[s] of God’s love and knowledge,” and to be free from anxieties over worldly things, personal “agendas“ and worries about others’ opinions of us.

When the intellect is ravished through love by divine knowledge and stands outside the realm of created beings, it becomes aware of God’s infinity. It is then, according to Isaiah, that a sense of amazement makes it conscious of its own lowliness and in all sincerity, it repeats the prophet’s words: ‘How abject I am, for I am pierced to the heart; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’ (Isa. 6:5).

And he reminds us the Lord’s commandment:

He who loves Me, says the Lord, will keep My commandments (cf. John 14:15, 23); and ‘this is My commandment, that you love one another’ (John 15:12).

St. John of Karpathos: Living in Hope and Love

Notes from March 18, 2016: St. John of Karpathos

So, suppose you were one of the monks that St. John of Karpathos was addressing. What would your life would look like if you followed his advice and how might it differ from the lives most of us live?

For example, you would likely be:

Constantly alert to even the most nuanced and hidden traps

John of Karpathos has a message of profound hope and optimism. But how are we to arrive at such hope? Certainly not by sugar-coating evil or underestimating the enemy.  Alertness and wakefulness are our first line of defense

The enemy lurks like a lion in his den; he lays in our path hidden traps and snares in the form of impure and blasphemous thoughts. But if we continue wakeful, we can lay for him traps and snares and ambuscades that are far more effective and terrible.

 And the greatest dangers are often hidden or disguised such as the clouding of our senses and delusion:

Guard yourself from the witchcraft of Jezebel (cf. 2Kgs.9:22). Her most powerful sells are thoughts of delusion and vainglory.

You would expect, and not be surprised by, life’s up and downs

Never get comfortable and smug, John advises. Neither should you depend on the “highs” of life and hold on tightly to them to derive meaning and hope.

Peter was first given the keys, but then he was allowed to fall into the sin of denying Christ; and so his pride was humbled by his fall. Do not be surprised, then, if after receiving the keys of spiritual knowledge you fall into various evil thoughts.

Often God takes away His blessings from us, just as He deprived job of his wealth:  ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away’ (Job 1:21).

You would accept setbacks as having a purpose though you might not be able to see it right away:

Glorify our Lord, for He alone is wise: through setbacks of this kind He restrains the presumption that we tend to feel because of our advance in the knowledge of God. Trials and temptations are the reins whereby God in His providence restrains our human arrogance.

You would overcome fear through the certainty that God would enable you to keep getting up not matter how many times you fall

…But it is equally true that God will also remove from us the adversities He has brought upon us. ‘Both blessings and adversities come from God’ (Ecclus. 11:14); He has caused us to suffer adversities, but He will also give us eternal joy and glory. ‘

The Lord says to you what He said to Matthew: ‘Follow Me’ (Matt. 9:9). But when you follow the Lord with burning love, it may happen that on the road of life you strike your foot against the stone of some passion and fall unexpectedly into sin; or else, finding yourself in a muddy place, you may slip involuntarily and fall headlong. Each time you fall and in this way injure your body, you should get up again with the same eagerness as before, and continue to follow after your Lord until you reach Him. ‘

Both blessings and adversities come from God’ (Ecclus. 11:14); He has caused us to suffer adversities, but He will also give us eternal joy and glory. ‘As I watched over you,’ says the Lord, ‘to destroy and afflict you, so will I build you up again and will not pull you down; I will plant you and will not uproot you’ (cf. Jer. 31:28; 24:6). Do not say: ‘It’s just my bad luck’; for the Lord, who changed our situation for the worse, can unexpectedly alter it again for the better.

You would look to inner stillness and what others see as “weakness” for strength

How often do we wear ourselves out trying to fix, control, dominate, compete, predict and exert our will in other ways to fix things or find meaning:

 It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own’ business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work…Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work— nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps. 13:5-6 LXX), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

A new understanding of true humility would become your weapon to any adversity or praise  

By God’s grace you can overcome such thoughts (of delusion and vainglory), if you regard yourself as worthless and despicable, casting yourself down before the Lord, calling upon Him to help you, and acknowledging that every gift of grace comes from heaven. For it is written: ‘A man can receive nothing, unless it is given him from heaven’ (John 3:27).

True humility, however, is not the same as self-pity and abasement. It is looking at life and your role in it differently, through the eyes of God and not your own. Accustomed as we are to seeing the world as a field of resources we can manipulate for our interests, this new would be equivalent to learning a new language. This is what Josef did when he left Egypt. The potential for such rebirth of our intellect lies within all of us:

We should mention in this connection an inward state that shows the degree of dispassion attained by the Joseph hidden within each of us. Our intellect, departing from Egypt, leaves behind it the burden of the passions and the builder’s basket of shameful slavery, and it hears a language that it does not understand (cf. Ps. 81:5-6 LXX). It hears no longer the demons’ language, impure and destructive of all true understanding, but the holy language of the light-giving angels, who convert the intellect from the non-spiritual to the spiritual— a language which illumines the soul that hears and accepts it.

This higher sense of humility, which is different from self-centered self-pity, was what was given to Job when, after asking God about the reason for his suffering, he comprehended his own insignificance in the vastness of God’s creation.

The humility which in due time and by God’s grace, after many struggles and tears, is given from heaven to those who seek it is something incomparably stronger and higher than the sense of abasement felt by those who have lapsed from holiness. This higher humility is granted only to those who have attained true perfection and are no longer under the sway of sin.

 You would be a skilled fighter who has mastered the art of self-restraint and mental discipline

We are not mere victims in the hands of the demons—passive prey to his temptations. John makes reference to very specific tools at our disposal that are so powerful that we can use to trap the devil ourselves:

Prayer, the recitation of psalms and the keeping of vigils, humility, service to others and acts of compassion, thankfulness, attentive listening to the words of Scripture— all these are a trap for the enemy, an ambuscade, a pitfall, a noose, a lash and a snare.

The battle is fought in the realm of thoughts because, as the Fathers say, every sin and path to despair begins with a single thought. Your ability to fight destructive passions rests on your ability to stop destructive thoughts at their very onset. If you succumb to the temptation to pause, entertain these thoughts and even argue with them, they will eventually overwhelm you and become entrenched habits. There are many concrete tools and “how to” guides in this treatise by St. John and all the Fathers’ writing. Here is an example:

The Law says about a bull which is given to goring other bulls: ‘If men have protested to the owner and he has not destroyed the animal, he shall pay’ (Exod.21:36 LXX). You should apply this to your thoughts and impulses. Sometimes during a meal the impulse of self-esteem springs up inside you, urging you to speak at the wrong moment. Then angelic thoughts protest within you and tell you to destroy this impulse to speak. If you do not resist the impulse by keeping silent as you should, but allow it to come out into the open because you are puffed up by delusion, then you will have to pay the penalty. As a punishment you will perhaps be tempted to commit some grave sin; alternatively, you may experience severe bodily pain, or be involved in violent conflict with your brethren, or else suffer torment in the age to come. We shall have to give account for every idle and conceited word spoken by our ill-disciplined tongue. Let us guard our tongue, then, with watchfulness.

You would have infinite hope.

There is no suffering, fall or humiliation from which there is no redemption.

St. John finds hope for those who do not fast or keep the ascetic discipline:

Once certain brethren, who were always ill and could not practise fasting, said to me: ‘How is it possible for us without fasting to rid ourselves of the devil and the passions? To such people we should say: you can destroy and banish what is evil, and the demons that suggest this evil to you, not only by abstaining from food, but by calling with all your heart on God. For it is written: ‘They cried to the Lord in their trouble and He delivered them’ (Ps. 107:6);

 Understanding the Lord’s will, then, do not be discouraged because of your inability to practice asceticism, but strive all the more to be delivered from the enemy through prayer and patient thanksgiving. If thoughts of weakness and distress force you to leave the city of fasting, take refuge in another city (cf. Matt. 10:23) that is, in prayer and thanksgiving.

For those who succumb to temptation:

…Therefore ‘until iniquity shall pass away’— that is, as long as sin still troubles me— ‘I will cry to God most high’ (Ps. 57:1-2 LXX), asking Him to bestow on me this great blessing: by His power to destroy within me the provocation to sin, blotting out the fantasies of my impassioned mind and rendering it image-free.

Those who cannot yet restrain their thoughts and passions

So, if you have not yet received the gift of self-control, know that the Lord is ready to hear you if you entreat Him with prayer and hope.

Those who give in to fear and sloth

When David went out from the city of Ziklag to fight the Amalekites, some of the men with him were so exhausted that they stayed behind at the brook Besor and took no part in the battle (cf. 1Sam. 30:10). Returning after his victory, he heard the rest of his troops saying that no share in the spoils should be given to the men who had stayed behind; and he saw that these themselves were ashamed and kept silent. But David recognized that they had wanted to fight, and so in his kindness he spoke in their defense, saying that they had remained behind to guard the baggage; and on this ground he gave them as large a share in the spoils as he gave to the others who had fought bravely in the battle. You should behave in the same way towards a brother who shows fervour at first, but then grows slack. In the case of this brother and his salvation, the baggage consists of faith and repentance, humility and tears, patience, hope, long-suffering and the like. If in spite of his slackness he yet guards this baggage, waiting expectantly for Christ’s coming, he is rightly given an eternal reward.

 We would refuse to despair no matter what the situation

  Blessed also are those who, when grace is withdrawn, find no consolation in themselves, but only continuing tribulation and thick darkness, and yet do not despair; but, strengthened by faith, they endure courageously, convinced that they do indeed see Him who is invisible.

Sometimes our soul grows despondent at the huge swarm of its sins and temptations, and says, ‘Our hope is gone and we are, lost’ (Ezek. 37:11 LXX). Yet God, who does not despair of our salvation, says to us: ‘You shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord’ (Ezek. 37:6).

Despair comes from lack of faith, when we refuse to believe that there might be possibilities beyond what is visible and known to us. Yet, ‘The Holy Spirit shall come upon you’ (Luke 1:35)— Where the Holy Spirit is present, do not expect any more the sequence and laws of nature and habit….He brings into existence what does not as yet exist within us. The intellect that was previously defeated He now makes victorious; for the Paraclete who in compassion comes upon us from above ‘is higher than all’ (John 3:31), and He raises us above all natural impulses and demonic passions.”

And finally, instead of doubt and fear you would be filled with confidence in the power of God and the weapons at your disposal

If a demon has such strength as to force a man, even against his will, to change from his natural state of goodness into a state of sin, how great must be the strength of the angel who at the appointed time is commanded by God to restore that man’s whole condition. If the icy blast of the north wind is strong enough to give to water the hardness of rock, what cannot the warmth of the south wind achieve? … So let us confidently believe that the cold, dark coals of our mind will sooner or later blaze with heat and light under the influence of the divine fire.

 ________________________________________

Notes from March 18, 2016: St. John of Karpathos

For the Encouragement of the Monks in India who had Written  to Him: One Hundred Texts

John builds on the theme of hope and gives us weapons against the most formidable battle we have to wage—that against despair. When we are weighed down by passions and sin, he acknowledges, it is easy to lose hope. Everything

With these pages John of Karpathos ends his essay for the monks in India.

He first repeats his theme of empowerment over the devil by reversing the conventional relationship between the devil as the tormentor and humans as the persevering victims. Instead, he asks us to push beyond credibility and consider how we are capable of becoming the devil’s tormentors instead.

We are aware of the torment that the enemy frequently inflicts upon us visibly or invisibly. But we do not perceive the torment and anguish that we inflict upon him, when we sometimes succeed in practicing the virtues, when we repent over our transgressions or show long-suffering and perseverance in our difficulties, pierce him to the heart…

 is shrouded with hopelessness through the lens of our distorted vision. And we believe that what our darkened vision perceives is all there is to see. We see no possible way out and we despair.  Yet the Holy Spirit that dwells within us is our source of life and hope, discerning our divine nature when we can’t and fulfilling potential within it that we are not even aware of.

 “To the soul that doubts how it can ever give birth to Christ through great acts of holiness, these words are said,” St. John says and quotes Luke 1:35: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you’— Where the Holy Spirit is present, do not expect any more the sequence and laws of nature and habit. The Holy Spirit whom we worship is all-powerful, and in an astonishing way He brings into existence what does not as yet exist within us. The intellect that was previously defeated He now makes victorious; for the Paraclete who in compassion comes upon us from above ‘is higher than all’ (John 3:31), and He raises us above all natural impulses and demonic passions.”

Refusing to despair is our greatest weapon against the devil.

…But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times because of the   withdrawal of God’s grace, rise up again each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death.

No matter what disaster befalls you, as long as hope propels you to get up infinite times “until the day of your death” you will not be defeated. This is why John tells us that

It is more serious to lose hope than to sin.

He illustrates this poignantly through the contrast between Judas and Peter–two men who sinned against Christ by denying him, and came to a point of painful recognition of the nature of their sin. Yet Judas despaired of forgiveness and salvation and hence was incapable of true repentance. Without the hope of forgiveness and renewal motivating you to change your ways, there can be no real repentance; and without repentance, there is way out of darkness and into a new life. Unlike Judas, Peter grieved but did not lose hope. Instead of giving up, he repented and transformed his life, becoming the rock of the church.

The traitor Judas was a defeatist, inexperienced in spiritual warfare; as a result he was reduced to despair by the enemy’s onslaught, and he went and hanged himself. Peter, on the other hand, was a firm rock: although brought down by a terrible fall, yet because of his experience in spiritual warfare he was not broken by despair, but leaping up he shed bitter tears from a contrite and humiliated heart. And as soon as our enemy saw them, he recoiled as if his eyes had been burnt by searing flames, and he took to flight howling and lamenting.

Judas, we are told, unlike Peter, was not versed in spiritual warfare. This is why he was “broken by despair.”  This means that warfare requires skill, deliberation and practice. It presumes full acknowledgment of the existence and danger of evil– the “barbarian cave-dwellers” living within us,” as St. John reminds us; “the demons who have gained admittance to your senses and limbs, who torment and inflame your flesh.” I am reminded of the first step in AA and other 12-step programs for addiction: “I am powerless over…” Yet outside of such programs, how seriously do we take the enemy within us and how skilled and experienced are we in the spiritual warfare against them and, ultimately, hopelessness?

Throughout his essay, St. John gives us clear directions for what it takes to become skilled in spiritual warfare. You engage in warfare by preserving hope and getting up each time you fall, over and over again; by relying on the Holy Spirit and not only your distorted vision of what is possible; by recovering the child in you, striving to “present your soul to the Lord in the same state as you received it from Him: pure, innocent, completely undefiled;” 82. by struggling “to preserve unimpaired the light that shines within your intellect.”

Most importantly, though, we strengthen our skills in warfare by becoming experienced in shedding our passions; blocking out the “noise” of our incessant thoughts and achieving inner stillness:

When there is no wind blowing at sea, there are no waves; and when no demon dwells within us, our soul and body are not troubled by the passions.

It is hard to block out the noise that has become part of the way we think and become impervious to anger, envy or praise. Yet in a beautiful passage John reassures us that “the holy place of God” and ‘all the glory of the king’s daughter is within.’

So as not to be deceived and carried away by the vain and empty things that the senses bring before us, we should listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘Come, my people, enter into your inner room )— the shrine of your heart, which is closed to every conception derived from the sensible world, that image-free dwelling-place illumined by dispassion and the overshadowing of God’s grace; ‘shut your door’— to all things visible; ‘hide yourself for a brief moment’— the whole of man’s life is but a moment; ‘until the Lord’s anger has passed by’ (Isa.26:20 LXX); or, as the Psalms put it, ‘until iniquity has passed’ (Ps. 57:1). This anger of the Lord and this iniquity may be caused by demons, passions and sins; as Isaiah says to God, ‘Behold, Thou art angry, for we have sinned’ (Isa.64:5). A man escapes this anger by keeping his attention fixed continually within his heart during prayer, and by striving to remain within his inner sanctuary. As it is written, ‘Draw wisdom into your innermost self’ (Job 28:18 LXX) ; ‘all the glory of the king’s daughter is within’ (Ps. 45:13 LXX). Let us, then, continue to struggle until we enter the holy place of God, ‘the mountain of Thine inheritance, the dwelling, O Lord, which Thou hast made ready, the sanctuary which Thy hands have prepared’ (Exod. 15:17).

In the end, it all leads to love– the spiritual warfare and refusal to stay on the ground if we fall; and all is predicated on love. Freed from passions and nourished by hope we can experience God’s love in its fullness. And when our heart is open and filled with love, there is no room for hopelessness and despair. Judas is tortured by his betrayal of Christ but his heart is devoid of the fullness of love that would open the window of hope.

If, as St John says, ‘God is love’, then ‘he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him’ (1John 4:16). But he who hates his neighbour, through this hatred, is separated from love. He, then, who hates his brother is separated from God, since ‘God is love, and he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.’ To Him be, ‘glory and power through all the ages. Amen.