Monday, July 9, 2012

Proper Way to Follow the Spiritual Path - Advice from St Isaac the Syrian



Saint Isaac the Syrian offers simple and clear advice on the proper way to follow the spiritual path. Often we pick up a book written by one of the Church Fathers on prayer or theosis and begin to put it into effect. We may read the Philokalia and begin to practice the Jesus Prayer. But St. Isaac gives us a big warning about the dangers in this approach. He is clear that there is a step by step apprach to union with God. First we have to tame the passions before we engage in contemplative activity.


He writes the following in Homely 2:
" The activity of taking up the Cross is twofold... First is patient endurance of the tribulations of the flesh...this is called righteous activity (praxis)...Second is to be found in the subtle working of the understanding, in steady meditation, in unfailing constancy of prayer, and other such practices...called divine vision (theoria)... As for the first, that is, praxis, it purifies the passionate part of the soul by the power of zeal. And the second, through the action of the soul's love, which is a natural yearning, thoroughly filters out the noetic part of the soul. Thus every man who, before training completely in the first part, proceeds to that second activity out of passionate longing for its sweetness (or rather should I say, out of sloth) has wrath come upon him, because he did not first 'mortify his members which are upon the earth' (Col 3:5), that is heal the infirmity of his thoughts by patient endurance of the labor which belongs to the same of the Cross. For he dared to imagine in his mind the Cross's glory..."


In other words, there are no shortcuts. Furthermore, the shortcut may lead us to wrath. This is often seen by those who take on the pratice of an eastern meditation. Instead of becoming more loving they become more intolerant of others. We also see this in Orthodox circles where one who begins acetic practices becomes disdainful of others, arrogant and distant. Their life instead of becoming more peaceful becomes more difficult.


We need to have patience and to first work of purifying our soul from the influence of the bodily passions. The vision of God and the greater truths will come naturally as we work on this.


St. Isaac defines divine vision as "the perception of divine mysteries which are hidden in things and causes." but this vision is only gained after much "up front" work on our part.


St Isaac says,


"The things of God, it is said, come to themselves, without one's being aware of it. Yes, only if the place is clean and not defiled."
The first step is to do what the Fathers call "separate from the world". St. Isaac tells us that "world" is "a collective noun which is applied to the so-called passions." To leave the "world" then means to separate the soul from the influence of the passions.


The passions he describes as follows:
"Love of wealth; gathering objects of any kind; bodily pleasure, from which comes the passion of carnal intercourse; love of esteem, from which springs envy; the wielding of power; pride in the trappings of authority; stateliness and pomposity; human glory, which is the cause of resentment; fear for the body... Examine in which of these passions are yo alive."


This is what we must first work on, controlling our passions. By examining ourselves in regard to the influence of these passion we can determine our true progress.


St. Isaac says,
"the world is the carnal way of life and the 'mind of the flesh.' (Rom 8:7) Hence a man's elevation above the world can also be recognized from these two things: from the good transformation of his way of life and from a discernment of his thoughts."
And finally, a warning that probably applies to most of us who are like youth on the spiritual path.


He writes:
"without harsh tribulations of the flesh it is difficult for the untrained youth to be held under the yoke of sanctification... lay bare your weakness before God"


Reference: The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 2, pp 122-126.

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