Thursday, 29 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Pride 5 — Pride and Asceticism

Christian asceticism emphasizes humility. That asceticism is not Christian that is proud, that does not view its goal as humility, that does not see itself as repentance. It is considered by the Fathers to be demonic. Beware of those who are proud of great feats of bodily ascesis. They are on the road of the devil.

And with this post we end this series on combating the eight passions.

Combating the Passion of Pride 4 — Overcoming Pride in the Monk

The primary therapy for pride is obedience. If a man is proud, and that is his ruling passion, he would do well to start in a severe cœnobium and to remain there all his life in strict obedience. This is not merely to ‘protect the church’. It is the right approach to ascesis for someone whose ruling passion is pride—and don’t let anyone tell you that strict obedience isn’t ascesis. For a man whose ruling passion is pride to enter into solitary ascesis is dangerous. It is largely a matter of time until he falls into spiritual delusion (Gr. plani; Ru. prelest). After that, it’s the mental hospital. That is why the Fathers are extremely reluctant to talk much about Hesychasm in public forums: Hesychasm attracts precisely those persons who shouldn’t meddle with it: the proud. That is also why it says in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that if you see a beginner ascending to Heaven by his own power, you should drag him down by his feet.

Combating the Passion of Pride 3 — Pride and the Monk

Monks start off well. In this day and age no one becomes an Orthodox monk because there is ‘something in it for him’. We all start off with ideals. Afterwards, however, the passion of pride enters in and we forget that we were once humble. We become hard.

Combating the Passion of Pride 2 — Pride and Repentance

The essential nature of pride is to refuse to repent—to insist. The first movement of humility is to admit that we were wrong, to ask for forgiveness.

George once told us about a woman he had known many years ago. She was counter-culture then; she is now a professor. She is physically very beautiful and quite courteous. She had a very chequered life; she is now alone on anti-depressants. What struck George, when he spoke with her, not having had contact with her for decades, was her spiritual pride.

This pride is incurable; only the mercy of God can enter into such a closed and hardened heart. Moreover, being counter-culture neither helped nor hindered her, nor her becoming a professor: the Gospel speaks on a different level to men and women, even those who are beautiful and courteous; on a different level to monks and nuns.

Combating the Passion of Pride 1 — Looking Towards the Theophany

In the service of Christmas, we look towards the Theophany.

Then Jesus comes from Galilee to the Jordan to John to be baptized by him. But John was preventing him, saying: ‘I have need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’

Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Let it be for now. For thus it is proper for us that we fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he let him.

And when he was baptized, Jesus immediately came up from the water and, Behold! the Heavens were opened to him and he saw the Holy Spirit descending as a dove and coming upon him.

And Behold! a voice from the Heavens saying: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.’

Matthew 3, 13–17

If Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity incarnate, could suffer himself to be baptized with a baptism of repentance in order to ‘fulfil all righteousness’, surely we who have sins can suffer ourselves to have a little humility.

Saturday, 24 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Vainglory 5 — The Example of our Saviour

The Virgin today gives birth to him who is beyond essence, and the earth brings forth the cave to the Unapproachable. Angels with shepherds sing hymns of glory. Mages, then, journey with a star. For on our behalf is born a new Child, God who is before the Ages.
(Kontakion of Christmas)

God came down from the heights of heaven to a cave; the Virgin held in her hands the Word of God incarnate and gave him suck. Who can betray this God by being vainglorious in his behaviour?

A Merry Christmas to all.

Orthodox Monk

Combating the Passion of Vainglory 4 — Vainglory in the Monastery

St John of Sinai has some rather severe methods for treating the passion of vainglory in the cœnobium: the Abbot is to berate the vainglorious monk—in front of the visitors. We saw this in action once. An Abbot we were once visiting in his official residence angrily berated his cell servant in front of us for not wearing his habit properly. The Abbot then turned to us and explained that he did this sort of thing to help his monks progress spiritually. We were not impressed. The Abbot did not have the discernment necessary. He was indulging his own vainglory, his own idea that he had reached the heights. It is not easy for an Abbot to put St John’s instructions into practice: he must have the Holy Spirit consciously present in his soul; he must have the discernment to know the true good from the natural good; he must himself be dispassionate so that he is only pretending to be angry. As we said, we were not impressed: the Abbot was indulging a passion, and we await the day that he is forced to leave his monastery—or else his monastery leaves him.

That having been said, when the dominant or ruling passion of a novice is vainglory or pride, rather harsh treatment must be meted out—at the hands of God, not at the hands of a vainglorious Abbot—to bring the man to his senses.

It is rather dangerous to have a monk in the monastery who is dominated by vainglory or pride, especially if he is in an administrative position. He may face down the Abbot. He may lead a rebellion. The poor Abbot.

Abbots should be very careful about accepting novices; they should be extremely careful if the novice is governed by vainglory or pride. They might never see the end of it.

Friday, 23 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Vainglory 3 — Sobriety and Vainglory

Monks and nuns who have progressed in Hesychasm to the stage where they have a modicum of sobriety have the ability to discern whether the decision they are taking is motivated by vainglory or by a love of the Lord.

If they have a love of the Lord, they will act out of that love, avoiding actions which are motivated by vainglory.

We beginners have to use more prosaic criteria: does my action redound to my own glory?

In general, it is best to do our actions in such a way that we are ‘inconspicuous’—so that our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing.

Combating the Passion of Vainglory 2 — Vanity vs. Vainglory

Vanity is combing your hair so it’s slicked down properly, making sure that your habit is ironed properly, trimming your moustache often.

Vainglory is making sure that your blog has a big readership, that it wins a Koufax Award.

Combating the Passion of Vainglory 1 — Physician, Heal Thyself

Who is going to take seriously an orthodox monk with a blog who talks about how to cure the passion of vainglory?

Saturday, 17 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Accidie (Sloth) 4 — Hyperactive Sloth

There is one form of accidie that we do not expect. When the monk dies spiritually, so as no longer to have any interest in spiritual things, he may not just sit around idly wasting his life. He may get busy. He may build buildings. Big buildings. A lot of them. He may go to the missions. Anything. Anything to pass the time. He may become a scholar, a historian, an archæologist. Anything to fill the emptiness. Anything to fill the empty hole where Jesus was.

Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Accidie (Sloth) 3 — Medical Issues

There are some illnesses that bring on lassitude in a person. Hence, before a monk has to give an account of his accidie or sloth, it would be well for him to be checked medically for any psychological or physical ailments.

We know of a case where the monk was found to have a glandular condition that was bringing on a sense of lassitude. It was only through a routine medical screening in a routine check-up that this was found.

Such medical conditions could be responsible for other ‘passions’ in a monk, such as hyperactivity, sorrow or other such conditions.

In general, in the monastery, there should be a proper medical attendance on all the monks, with regular checkups. In a monastery, the Spiritual Father of the monk or nun has the ultimate responsibility for the monk’s or nun’s medical well-being. He must be well-informed of the medical condition of the monk’s in his spiritual charge. This matter is addressed in one of St Basil the Great’s Shorter Rules, near the end of the set. However, in some Western countries, there may be legal issues in applying St Basil’s counsel.

It would be most appropriate if one of the monks were a doctor, but this is not always possible in a monastery, for obvious reasons. The next best thing would be for the monastery to have a working relationship with an external doctor who is both medically well-qualified and a pious Orthodox, so that the doctor can appreciate the special circumstances of a monk’s or nun’s lifestyle. The last possibility is to have a working relationship with a medically well-qualified external doctor who is not a pious Orthodox. Even in the case where the monastery is making use of a clinic, it is best if there is continuity of personnel of the clinic in the medical treatment of the monks and nuns.

The monastery will have to take account of both the need for and the possibilities of payment for the monks’ or nuns’ medical care. This might involve medical insurance.

Monday, 12 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Accidie (Sloth) 2 — Training Novices

In the monastery, care must be taken to train the novices to work hard all their lives. This is a matter of learning. We can learn to be lazy; we can learn to work hard. Of course, there should not be a ‘sweat-shop’ atmosphere in the monastery. However, part of the formation of the monk should be an attitude that it is proper to work. This will become a habit in the monk and as he progresses the monk will retain this habit. This habit will serve him in good stead in his spiritual endeavours, since asceticism is itself a matter of work—of work on ourselves.

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Accidie (Sloth) 1 — Sloth in the Monastery

We learn from the Ladder of Divine Ascent that accidie (sloth) affects Hesychasts more than cœnobites. The cœnobium assuages the monk’s tendency to accidie with psalmody and manual labour. St Anthony, according to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, was taught to vary his routine every hour or so. This also is a treatment for accidie: the variety helps the time pass.

However, in common with the other passions, accidie is primarily a spiritual passion, and the ultimate treatment is spiritual: the memory of our passing. Accidie says that life is long, nothing is happening, that time is passing slowly if at all. The memory of our passing, properly practised, teaches us that life is short, that the day of our passing is unknown, and that the time is short that we have to work on our salvation. This helps us to maintain a proper zeal.

St Hesychios recommends that the Hesychast increase his Eros for God in order to combat accidie. Here we have an example of a virtue related to a passion. Eros is the love that men and women have for each other. As a passion, it is called fornication. The virtue that corresponds to fornication is Eros, that same passionate love, but directed to God and virtue.

Combating the Passion of Anger 5 — Anger in the Monastery

It can be seen from the foregoing posts that anger is a very important issue in the daily life of the monastery: the monks must aim for meekness so that they can pursue a life of uninterrupted prayer, normally the Jesus Prayer. This means that novices must be taught not to argue but to give way. They must be taught to maintain their peace with a genuine humble and uncondescending charity in the face of bad or irregular behaviour on the part of others. They must be taught to control themselves, especially in the face of frustration. This is the case whether it is inanimate objects, animals or other people that are frustrating them. This is training: we must learn to behave in certain ways, first by an act of the will, then by habit and finally, when our passions are purified, by an habitual act of charity.

Wednesday, 7 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Anger 4 — Do Demons Exist?

In the last post, we briefly discussed the use of anger against sin and against the demons. Now, someone might say, here is one of those mad monks again, talking about the demons. Do demons exist? Yes. However, so do natural ailments, both psychological and physical. It is not a simple matter to discover a demon in someone else, and only Elders have the charism to do such a thing. We beginners have to leave these things alone.

However, here is a point. As the Elder Porphyrios (1906–1991), whose book of reminiscences, Wounded by Love, we cited in this post, remarks, it is part of the dogma of Christianity that the Devil and demons exist. For we learn in the Bible that Jesus Christ came to destroy the works of the Devil.

To give you an idea of the sort of fellow the Elder Porphyrios was, so that his remarks on the existence of the demons make sense, in one of the many books about him, there is recounted the following episode in his life. He had a cancerous carbuncle on his head which needed to be cauterized. It was a Friday afternoon when he went to a doctor in Athens, who told him that he needed anæsthetic for such a procedure, that it was too late to find the anæsthetist and that he would have to come back another time. But the Elder Porphyrios wanted to go that day to Mt Athos and told the doctor to proceed without anæsthetic. The doctor only consented after the Elder Porphyrios pressured him, with the thought that one touch of the cauterizing iron lightly on the head and the priest would come to his senses and come back another day.

The doctor began the procedure. The room filled with the smell of burning flesh. The Elder Porphyrios entered into a state of prayer united to Christ on Golgotha. He didn’t flinch. The doctor shouted: ‘Penelope (his nurse)! The little old priest is a yogi!’

The Elder Porphyrios remarked in recounting this story that the Devil himself prompted the doctor to shout that out, so as to disturb the Elder’s union with God. For, the Elder Porphyrios remarked, ‘In such a situation, if you lose your mental union with God, you’re lost.’ Remember that the room was filling with the smell of burning flesh.

That’s the sort of fellow that the Elder Porphyrios was—and more. When he says that we have to take seriously the existence of the Devil and the demons, we have to take seriously what he’s saying.

Now the point is that the demons are behind the tempting thoughts. This is not medieval theology: it is part and parcel of Orthodox ascetical psychology. And here is where the proper use of anger comes in: it is used as a directed tool against the demons when they are sowing a tempting thought.

Combating the Passion of Anger 3 — The Proper Use of Anger

In the last post, we discussed the easiest way to reject a tempting thought: to turn to the words of the Jesus Prayer.

Now we are going to discuss a far more difficult method. We don’t actually want to put this method into practice; however, it is important that we understand it.

This new method is the use of anger against the tempting thought. We have said that anger is a passion. We have been discussing how to combat anger. Now we are saying that we should use anger against the tempting thought. Are we not contradicting ourselves?

Here is a very important point. All the passions are distortions of an impulse implanted in us by God for our good. That is, all the passions have their good side. That is why we can be virtuous. The virtues are nothing other than the impulses that we call passions when those impulses are operating according to nature.

So the virtue related to anger is itself a sort of anger. What sort? It is an anger against the demons and against sin, and, when we are sinful, against ourselves (but not in excess). That is why God implanted the impulse of anger in us: so that we might get angry against sin.

Now the classical way to use anger against sin is to speak a word of anger against the demon that is tempting us. This is a very delicate matter, for if we fly into a rage against the demon, against sin or against ourselves, we will only damage ourselves, perhaps very seriously. We must make a controlled use of anger against the demons, against sin.

We will speak in the next post about the demons.

St John of Sinai tells us in the Ladder of Divine Ascent that only the more advanced Hesychast has the strength to use the method of anger against the demons. That is why we do not want our blog readers to try it. You have to be more advanced. However, it is important for us to understand this method, because its existence tells us much about Orthodox ascetical psychology.

Friday, 2 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Anger 2 — Rejecting the Tempting Thought

We said in the last post that at the most basic level, the monk gets rid of a tempting thought by rejecting it. Let’s look at this rejection a little more carefully.

In Orthodox monasticism, the tempting thought is—well, a temptation. It is an invitation to sin. It must be refused. This marks a very big point of divergence between Orthodox mental ascesis and Tibetan Buddhist systems of meditation. In at least some Tibetan Buddhist systems of meditation (we are by no means experts on the matter), the monk is encouraged not to reject the thought that comes to him, say of the touch of silk, but to give himself over to the thought, invoking a higher god or guru, which god or guru will raise his mind to a higher state of consciousness over and above the thought. In tantric meditation, the monk is often directed to visualize himself as engaged in tantric yoga with a goddess.

Orthodox mental ascesis proceeds in a completely contrary fashion. The thought is to be rejected at its inception, or as soon after its inception in the monk’s consciousness that the monk realizes that he has the thought and can reject it. Orthodox mental ascesis is an emptying from such thoughts, a battling with such thoughts. The origin of these thoughts is considered to be the demons.

Accounts of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices leave the Orthodox monk with a deep unease, precisely because the Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice is for the monk not to reject the thoughts but to give himself over to them. The Orthodox fears that the Tibetan Buddhist is giving himself over to demons.

How does the Orthodox monk reject these thoughts? There is a fairly detailed but very difficult ascetical literature on the matter, much of which is represented in the first volume of the Philokalia or in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai. Much time is spent in this literature on the very early stages of a tempting thought. This is a very subtle Christian psychology of meditation.

Let us take the easiest way first. That is for the monk—or layman—to return to the words of the Jesus Prayer. This is how beginners are taught the Jesus Prayer, and it makes sense. Because our mind can think only one thought at a time (because of the way it’s built), if we return to thinking or saying the words of the Jesus Prayer, we have taken our mind off the tempting thought, which will eventually get tired and stop.

St John of the Sinai in the Ladder points out that the beginner usually does not have the strength to get rid of the tempting thought on his own power (he will acquire that strength as he grows in Hesychasm). He must, St John says, use petitionary prayer. Now St John was writing these particular passages for full-blown Hesychasts, but the principle remains the same even for us beginners: as we are practising the Jesus Prayer and are afflicted by tempting thoughts, we may find that our only recourse is to ask Jesus for help. This is a little tricky, because if we actually stop the Jesus Prayer to ask for help, then we have been defeated. The thought has accomplished its purpose: we have stopped the Jesus Prayer. Since we should always have in our daily program a period of petitionary prayer in addition to the Jesus Prayer, we can ask for help then. Of course, if things are really bad, then we may have no choice but to stop the Jesus Prayer, and pray in a petitionary way for help. This requires discernment.

In the case of the tempting thought of rancour, the above principles apply. We said in the last post that the monk was involved in an altercation and got angry, and that when he began his period of Jesus Prayer he then had a tempting recollection of the altercation. Now we can see how we beginners should in the first instance proceed: we should make every effort to keep our mind on the words of the Jesus Prayer and not to entangle our mind in the recollection of the altercation. Moreover, when we have finished our period of the Jesus Prayer (or even before that period), we should pray to Jesus Christ that he free us from the tempting thought of rancour. Moreover, since we should be conducting a daily examination of conscience, we should at some point during the day also have an opportunity to examine coolly whether in fact we sinned in the altercation: it may be that we have the persistent thought of rancour because we have in fact committed a sin or fault and need to repent (and in some cases even to see the priest).

In the case of tempting thoughts related to the other seven passions, we proceed in much the same way. In no case do we give ourselves over to the thought; in no case do we visualize ourselves engaged in practices which are not permitted to Christians and Christian monks.

Thursday, 1 December 2005

Combating the Passion of Anger 1 — The Tempting Thought of Rancour

In our last post, we described an interior condition free from tempting thoughts, one in which the Jesus Prayer continues—with great personal intensity, certainly—in an empty mind. This condition is close to the guard of the mind. The guard of the mind is the goal of the Hesychast, and it is from the guard of the mind that the Hesychast is raised by Grace to contemplation.

Let us suppose that in praying in this way, the monk observes an image in his field of consciousness. Let us suppose that this image attracts him, so that he wants to look at it, examine it, talk to it. If the monk gives in to this temptation to consort with the image that appears in his consciousness, thus deflecting his mind from the practice of the Jesus Prayer, then he has begun to consent to a tempting thought.

Let us now suppose that the monk is praying the Jesus Prayer in the way we described in the last post, although he is not dispassionate. That is, he is still subject to the passions. (Indeed, if he is still subject to the passions, he must be careful not to make too much of an ability to pray in the way that we have described: the demons that initiate the tempting thoughts might have withdrawn for a time, without for all that the monk being free of his passions.) Let us also suppose that having finished his vigil at night alone before God, the monk goes about his daily business, during which he falls into a disagreement with someone. Since he is not dispassionate, the monk might very well get angry at the other person. Let’s assume that he does, that he gets angry.

Let’s suppose that the monk calms down in an hour or two, finishes his day and gets up to do his cell vigil again, alone before God.

Now, when he begins to bring his mind into his heart practising the Jesus Prayer, the monk finds that things are not the way they were the day before. He sees that he is continually being distracted by a memory of the altercation he had earlier in the day. He keeps being drawn to a recollection of the event, of the person who offended him. He might begin to ‘act out’ in thought what he should have said and what he should have done in the episode but didn’t think of at the time.

We now say that the monk has a tempting thought of rancour. It is quite possible to have a tempting thought, of exactly the same nature as the thought of rancour just described, for any of the eight passions. The monk might have a thought of a pretty girl he knew 35 years ago, a thought of money and what he is going to do with it, a thought of honours that will accrue to him for his holiness and so on. In each case, however, the thought is distracting the monk from the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the way we described in the last post.

Mental ascesis is the practice of rejecting such tempting thoughts.

Now here we are interested in combating the passion of anger. Hence, we are interested in the tempting thought of rancour which is disturbing the monk’s practice of the Jesus Prayer. How does the monk get rid of this thought? At the most basic level, as with all of the tempting thoughts, he rejects it. He does not dally with it.

In general, in order to combat the passion of anger, the monk must strive to attain to meekness. This meekness is very similar to spiritual love, and should be distinguished from a sentimental meekness that verges on obsequiousness or unctuousness. It requires an honest humility to accomplish this meekness, and some spiritual maturity in how to deal with other people when they have grown angry or difficult.

In his everyday behaviour, so as to avoid in his prayer the distracting thoughts of rancour that we have just described, the monk must be careful not to give in to anger. There is nothing in the Christian monastic tradition that encourages expressions of anger. Instead, the Christian monastic tradition takes a more behaviouristic approach: avoid expressions of anger and your anger will diminish. Express meekness in your behaviour and your meekness will increase and your anger diminish.