On Asceticism and Stillness

Okay, I’ll be honest. This guy sounds a lot like the last one. I’m on two of I’m-scared-to-count and if this is some foreshadowing of future sections I’m going to have to do some very deep digging and pair it with some real creativity to keep you here. But! Turns out this guy is just as gold as the last one. I’m reading this section from Evagrios the Solitary, apparently not a saint and never even a priest but he was in attendance at the Council of Constantinople (381) which was kind of big deal if you don’t know. It validated the Trinitarian Doctrine where we could all officially agree that the Holy Spirit was on par with God and the Son. It also put out the Nicene Creed, lots going on there at the Second Ecumenical Council. 

I’ve got to hand it to him though, he is forward thinking and says some brazen things like not getting “caught up in concern for your parents or relatives” lest they rob you of the stillness. Or how being married means you’ll be too worried about pleasuring your wife which equates to you worrying too much about those damnable “worldly thoughts and desires”. Is this perhaps the first ever dude whose friends, if he had any, gave him the “savage” comment? But get this – he says “if you find yourself growing too strongly attached to your cell, leave it, do not cling to it”! Now, listen, I know he’s not talking about cell phones but how apropos is that? I told you he was forward thinking! In all seriousness though, these are the thoughts, from many centuries ago, that can change our lives if we let them. Plenty has been said about the damage those little beasts of technology in our pocket so I’ll leave it at that but reading the cell comment surely gave me great pause, and laughter. 

Before I get into the meat can we take a moment to appreciate glossaries? This book has one and while I’ve seen most of these tricky words before it’s so nice to go to the back and get a good handle. Can we also take a moment to be angry about the fact that “asceticism” isn’t in it! If ever there was a word to add to the glossary of a book I would think ‘asceticism” in The Philokalia would be it. But, no. For those of us still grappling with the word think monasticismwhen you read it. It is essentially a denying of the self, a denying of bodily, worldly pleasures (even necessary ones like eating) to the end of finding closeness with God, particularlybecausethose indulgences are believed to be the wedges the divide one from living out God’s will. In a sense, the whole of the Philokalia series is about asceticism so we might as well get defining terminology out of the way. 

So, after that long-winded introduction, let’s see what Evagrios has to say. Extreme statements about marriage notwithstanding, he raises some brilliant points that can be applied to current twenty-first century living. He breaks down “achieving a life of stillness” first addressing food and hospitality, and clothes. Referencing Matthew 6:33 is a weak spot of mine so I bought in the moment I read him framing all this within the be-anxious-for-nothing context, even though that’s Philippians – same idea. What’s being said is so simple. “Be content.” With regard to clothes he reminds us that we will be provided for. Same goes for food. “Keep to a sparse and plain diet, not seeking variety of tempting dishes.” Yikes, sounds drab. But here’s an interesting point he makes, that hospitality is not about impressing ones guests, nor leaving them feeling grateful for a full belly of good food and conversation. Instead, he says it is about “making them feel welcome and saying something helpful”. How many of us think of hospitality as truly offering help to our guests and making them feel like they can come as they are. Don’t come with a bottle of wine, or your cute outfit, or your stories of your latest. Come exactly as you are in all your sorrow and failures and shortcomings and with little to offer me, and I will welcome you, and I will love you. 

There is this pesky element of keeping up with the Joneses in hospitality these days, too. I am so guilty of frantically cleaning, prepping, tidying, and redecorating before guests arrive. Why? Because I care about what they think of me more than I care about being good to them. Because I want them to be impressed by me. I want them to like me, or worse yet I want them to want to be like me. Ugh, what an admission. Talk about being “robbed of stillness”. I am very much getting caught up in being “materially minded and involved in worldly affairs”. Fleeting affairs that are of no consequence to my soul, albeit negative ones. It’s quite easy in this world to allow ourselves to consume and acquire to no real end. Are we not content with the full and unconditional love of Christ? 

This is where Matthew so perfectly says:

            “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil no spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more cloth you, O you of little faith? Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, “what shall we eat?” or “what shall we drink?” or “what shall we wear?”. For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these thing will be added to you. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”  Matthew 6:25-34

Mic drop. 

Seriously folks, is there really anything left to say after that? At least on that topic. 

Moving on, he also warns against “gathering wealth for giving to the poor”. Dave Ramsey might not be this guys biggest fan as he always says to acquire wealth ”so you can live and give like no one else”. Hard to argue with that. Why should our desire to be as generous as possible stop us from amassing large amounts of wealth? Perhaps because that’s not all there is to it. By way of making that money we put ourselves in some spiritually precarious positions, do we not? With so much money do we become seduced by things, by acquisition, by living extravagantly? Humility is harder and harder to come by the more and more we have. In seeking peace with money Evagrios finally says “do not haggle about the price from love of gain, and so indulge in actions harmful to the soul – quarrelling, lying, shifting your ground and so on – thus bringing our way of life into disrepute.” Guilty as charged yet again. I need to just leave a bigger tip next time, it’s not that big of a deal. Those five or so dollars were not bringing me any more joy I can promise you that. 

As this has become a longer post I’ll bring up two last points. Steadiness. Using a wine metaphor (is there anything wine can’t do?), he tells us to “stay in the same place and you will find how greatly this benefits you”. There is indeed something so peaceful about the unchanging. Sure we should embrace growth and improvement and new opportunities and so forth, but seeking change for the sake of change is unsteady. Seek reliability. Boredom is never a good excuse in my opinion. I did hear a compelling argument once about the correlation between boredom and stupidity. Being bored could really be the fault of the person who isn’t looking deeply and hard enough at something. 

 And, lastly, when we begin to struggle with asceticism and choosing a “more” still life (I’m thinking intervals here as no one is suggesting Monasticism), Evagrios asked us to think ahead. The ancient thought to the modern adage about discipline being that we not give up what we want most for what we want now. “Picture all the blessings that await the righteous: intimate communion with God the Father…the gladness and the joy.” We do live in an instant gratification society where we rarely, if at all, “call to mind what is even now going on in hell, thinking of the suffering, the bitter silence, the terrible moaning, the great fear and agony, the dread of what is to come, the unceasing pain, the endless weeping”. Pray, and remember that day you will stand before God and “imagine that fearful and awesome judgement-seat”. Awesome judgement? Who is this? That is most certainly not how I view judgement but okay, whatever you say man-who-lived-in-4th-century. He did entirely nail it though, when he said, “for the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us”. That’s for damn sure. 

 

 

On Guarding the Intellect

St. Isaiah the Solitary remarks on Guarding the Intellect in these, his twenty-seven texts. They are not impossible to read but gleaning the nuggets is where I’m staying. Without splitting hairs on context and words I’ll speak to the places these thoughts took me. There is much repetition here for the sake of argument but we’ll leave that be and go with the gist. Because every great thinker wants little depth of thought, right? Sorry St. Isaiah.

Oddly, the first place this text took me was Jerry Springer. The juxtaposition of an impressive 4th century thinker and the 21st century low-life who publicly preys on the sad and imprudent lives of others couldn’t be more jarring. But here’s how I got there. Guarding the intellect is a bit like taking custody of ourselves, what we see, what we think, what we hear, what we say. He (St. Isaiah, not Jerry Springer, if you’re with me) talks about teaching ourselves to hate sin and resist the desires of the flesh. Presumably he is not talking about all the good things of the flesh like eating, having sex, drinking, sun bathing - just kidding. To the extent that those things separate us from God that’s exactly what he is speaking of. “I entreat you” he says, “not to leave your heart unguarded, so long as you are in the body.” When we do leave our heart unguarded, we allow things like the depravity of others and the weaknesses of ourselves to root. What we view and think on grows. So as we watch the guests - calling them such seems even too kind - on the Jerry Springer show attack one another, hit one another, lie, admonish and admit to not just sinfulness but gloating in that sinfulness two things happen. We normalize it. We allow for it to live in our minds the moment we watch and listen. And worst yet, we find ourselves above it. We somehow believe we are not them. I have news for you folks. Not only are we exactly them, we are even more so when we take joy or find entertainment in viewing their suffering.

St. Isaiah even says here “take heed, lest your hearts be overwhelmed with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of this life, and the hour come upon you unawares”. The opposition is waiting. Always, poised and ready to pounce the moment we leave ourselves open or inviting - unaware or not - to the adversary who wants nothing more than to “deliver us into the hands of our enemies”. Like vultures, “the demands cunningly withdraw for a time in the hope that we will cease to guard our heart…then they suddenly attack our unhappy soul and seize it like a sparrow”. The devil is merciless and we are weak. This writer knows well that owning our souls means “dragging it down mercilessly into all kinds of sin, worse than those with we have already committed”.

I think about 7 evil things before taking my first sip coffee in the morning so ceaselessly guarding my heart seems like a big ask. It would seem easier to guard by omitting and disallowing things than making additions to wholesome virtues. But I’m beginning to think that’s exactly what makes this topic so worthwhile. It is not good enough to sit in fear and paralysis staving off bad thoughts and wondering what destruction is to come lest we allow darkness in our lives. Rather what’s asked of us here; to “rigorously practice the virtues”. Do not deny, add! Do not just turn off Jerry Springer but bring goodness into your life with intentionality. St. Isaiah says:

  1. “Pursue the love which quenches all bodily passions and struggle against what is contrary to nature”.

  2. “Examine yourself daily in the sight of God and discover which of the passions is in your heart. Cast it out.”

  3. “Be attentive to yourself, so that nothing destructive can separate you from the love of God. Do not grow listless.”

  4. “In prayer, expel from our heart the provocation of each evil though, rebutting it in a spirit of devotion so that we do not prove to be speaking to God without lives while pondering wicked thoughts in our hearts.” (Ahem! Jerry, cough-cough, Springer, cough-cough. No finger pointing though).

  5. “Resist the evil”.

Seems simple enough. Not in the least actually. What a daunting, humbling task. And yet what a life-saving gift this would be to fill our lives with virtue and wholesomeness and not by accident. I’ll end with this. Throughout St. Isaiah speaks on our guarding our own hearts but he also speaks to needing a “pilot”. He emphasizes we need help in all this and we need to ask for it. When in the presence of others, he says, we should learn this goodness. Surround yourself with good people. Remember, don't just remove. Add. Add the good and decent in our lives and do it with others.

“He who receives no help when at war should feel no confidence when at peace.”

The Why? (third draft)

It's advent as I write this. It is a season filled with hope and faith that gets sadly overshadowed by the commercialization of this holiday. The giving inflates and the reasons get moved aside like that last end-piece of the fruitcake at the party. What’s so important about this season is that it’s representative of the word “coming” in two unique ways. One, we are celebrating the first coming of Christ, the excitement and joy that is found in His birth on Christmas. And two, the word “coming” is what engages our faith and hope. We are declaring that we indeed desire His second coming. Though we may say we desire Him, the proof is in the plum pudding, so to speak. We must behave and believe we want Him to return to us. The philokalia project is preparation and improving readiness to fortify this declaration.

It’s advent. Years ago I tried to start this blog and got through 2 posts and paused. Okay, I paused for months and months. I was paralyzed by the thought of these posts not getting to the true meaning and perfect articulation of what I wanted to express about this project. I feared my own irrelevance. I still fear that what I say is inadequate and far from scratches the eloquent truth. But as I live and suffer through this lesson, I’m learning that it is when I embrace my humanness, my very imperfect self that I can invite the Holy Spirit into my life to heal my wounds. It's also where my imperfect aligns with the reasons Christ became man - his living, being persecuted and crucified would be rather meaningless if he weren't fully man. I’ll need to tell myself this over and over for days on end and years to come but I’m the only one who thinks I need to be perfect. God for certain knows I’m not. And the ones who love me truly see I’m not. Our imperfections don’t define us, nor do our failures. So in the spirit of Christmas (the hopefulness of Christ’s return) I’m going to blast through the devil’s attempt to hold me up. I’m going to blast through the fear of posting an imperfect post. Even more, I’m going to leave up my previous posts for which this was meant to be yet another draft. (As writers, we should love our imperfect first (and second) drafts.) I’m going to begin this project, as I’ve wanted to do for months now, and struggle through it with prayer, study and my faith.

The Why? (second draft)

 

Recently I read the account of St Ignatius’ St. Paul-like conversion to a Christian way of life. The image conscious and fame seeking man suffered a devastating injury to his legs in battle leaving him rather unable to pull off the trendy tight leggings of the royal courts in that time. His vanity got the better of him and he decided on a cosmetic surgery, quite elective for the time, to fix his legs. While he lay there healing for months, he read Vitu Jesu Christi and Flos Sanctorum among others. His conversion thereafter was actually rather unlike St. Paul’s in quickness but similar in significance and completeness from start to finish. It’s as if a small seed was planted upon those readings in Iñigo’s heart, one that first needed to grow strong roots before any blossom could come forth. St Ignatius went on to be the author of Spiritual Exercises, the founder of the Jesuits and a teacher, both by example and word, of Christianity. Inspired by his faith he spread the Word of God.

It’s no small thing to do but as my Christian faith has so far taught me, it’s an ultimate example and representation of oneself. Reading of his conversion I wondered what work of the Holy Spirit struck with him and drove out the darkness in his soul to take on such a dramatic change. I wondered and longed for the same connection in Christ to live Christianity. I feel silly dreaming of being a saint and trying to find some common ground there. In truth I don't dream to be a saint. The common ground is only that we were both made in the image and likeness of God and born with Original Sin. Our times, our opportunities, our minds, are all different. But just as Christ lives, so does the burning desire in our souls to find Him in our hearts. I share that desire with St. Ignatius and I believe that others living now do too. The philokalia is to act as my itinerary in guiding me towards that consciousness with Christ. I’m inviting my readers (or lone reader I fear) to join in prayer for this journey of mine and the journey’s of others who have yet to be lead toward Christ or are in the current moments of doing so now. It’s epic. And I’m happy to share my struggles and successes here.

The Why? (first draft)

I can't help but think that even though I've been raised a good (Roman) Catholic girl, spent a life attending mass regularly, and attempt on a near daily basis to live the life of a Christian I've somewhere gone astray. Have we all just answered the question by convention that a Christian is one who participates in a Church and lives charitably? Is that the standard? Does it seem good enough to be in and out of practicing Christianity, to say that I'm a follower of Christ and yet exhibit few or little signs in the passing days that I am what I say? The words that expose me as Christian are very simply just words. I fear no one would mark me as the kind of person I expect and desire to be were they to be asked of my reputation. I should add, too, that I am by no means a poor Christian. The work to follow the commandments and practice moral virtues is not what I here bring into question. My 'inner' spiritual self (an explanation that will be elaborated on next and is representing in the introduction of the Philokalia) is the true concern; my devotion. Of all the hours in the day I participate very little in reminding myself of God's presence and meaning. And though I may practice in obvious action what seems to be fine behavior, my contributions and sacrifice for my spiritual well-being, which has the utmost value, has fallen short. In the end, and as always, I believe that Christianity is the answer. My belief and spirit ought match in fervor. I'm looking to bridge that gap. Here I will take a genuine step. My first mindful effort towards a union with God from each present moment, where I reach out my hand to God and prove that it is my wish to return to Him (Jeremiah 24:7). Enter Philokalia. 

 

I wanted something pure, something raw, something old. I wanted something I knew would be true as I read it. Nothing by someone who had too much to say that really ended up being more about them and less about what they wrote. I wanted what would immediately resonate and continue to live in me like throbbing embers of a fire. I was standing there in the Christianity section with flint and dry grass holed in my heart waiting for a text to strike the stone. I stared along the bindings of books, up and down shelves for rows and rows. A truly boring looking book caught my eye. The plain cover was promising; one muted color and black lettering. It wasn't trying to sell itself. This book needed no persuasion if you ask me. You are either drawn to it and what's inside, or it's not for you. I shut it nearly just as quick as I opened it. I only needed a glimpse of the page to notice how the words were joined with such ease and flawlessness, and yet revealed (so immediately) such profound simplistic truths. Sparks flew. None lit just yet but I hadn't given it a chance. This thing deserved my full, undivided attention. 

 

Thus, The Philokalia Project. I've read my fair share of books on contemplative prayer and Christianity, and Orthodoxy; Thomas Merton, Thomas a Kempis, Kallistos Ware, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, etc. I've devoted a relatively small amount of time to its practice and an even smaller amount of time to thinking about what it means to be a Christian...until now.

The Jesus Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

This prayer is the roots upon which the Philokalia and Christianity live. In perhaps the shortest combination of words to do so, it speaks the whole Truth and is all we need to remember (perpetually) as members of the Church. It also represents the beginnings of my introduction to the Philokalia. I came to it as most do to Christ, in the hour of my deepest need. If ever there is a perfect time to know that you are and always will be a child of Christ, it is during the moments of darkness when you are haunted relentlessly by the enemy and led so deliberately close to the edge of doubt and despair. It was suggested to me during a period of such blackness that the Jesus Prayer be my 'worm'; the words I would utter endlessly throughout my days in pursuit of perspective and hope. I would later settle on both it and the second half of the Hail Mary. (Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.) These recitations work. I'm not sure where I will be after my trip through the Philokalia. I'd imagine work - taking the word to mean accomplished -will take on a much different meaning for me by the end. But for now (and in the darkness) work only means having me live to see another day - still a sheep among the heard. 

 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.