St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom commented on the following saying of our Lord, “As I find you, so will I judge you,” (Ezekiel 33:20) saying that forgetting to practice the smallest of the Commandments of our Lord is all that is sufficient to send one to Gehenna and exclude us from the kingdom of heaven.
Think about this for a moment. How many of us are ignoring the reality of our sinfulness? How many blame others for our shortcomings? How much time to spend complaining about what others do? Do we spend the same amount of time thinking about our own actions?
Saint Basil of Poiana Marului says the following,
Yes, we sin every day, at times unconsciously or out of forgetfulness, without intending to or involuntarily, or because of weakness we sin every day willingly and unwillingly. Because of our human nature and weakness we sin every day willingly and unwillingly. Is this not what the apostle Paul refers to when he says, “I do what I do not want and what I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:15)? All of us commit excusable sins without asking to be excused. Or rather, we fall into sins that can be forgiven and yet we feel no contrition and thus become guilty of God's judgment and bring God's wrath upon ourselves. In the words of an ancient saying, “we have made a habit of sitting with her own free will”–– that is, we are consciously aware of committing sins and have developed the habit of sitting with our own free will.The recognition of the reality of our sinfulness, the fact that we do sin many times each and every day, is the starting point for our salvation. It is important for us to recognize that we must continually ask the Lord for forgiveness as well as those whom we transgress. Saaint Basil tells us that “we should ask forgiveness of our fellow man face-to-face and beg forgiveness of God with the intellect and secret.”
We all have particular passions that we have grown up with, that have given us great pleasures, that we have continued to nurture and develop habitually. This passion will be different for each individual. For one person it may be an insatiable appetite for food, for another love of money, anger, self-esteem, arrogance or others. All of these increase over time through habit. St. Hesychios reminds us what the great lawgiver Moses teaches when he says, “Pay attention to yourself so that you have no secret thoughts in your heart” (Deuteronomy 15:9). Needless to say, it is imperative that we learn to closely examine ourselves each and every day. It is a matter of recognizing that we have weaknesses and that we need to pray to God continually with a broken heart and the contrite spirit. We must avoid accusing others but instead forgive others as this is what is pleasing to God. With our forgiveness of others and our recognition of our own weaknesses God will forgive us through his great mercy.
Our challenge in the spiritual life is to live the Commandments that Christ has given to us; all of them all of the time. We need to work at this with the best of our ability, recognizing that we are not fully capable of doing this. Because of this imperfect condition, we need to always be repentant and seeking forgiveness from others and our Lord.
This is an issue of obedience. We must learn to become obedient to God's commandments not to our own self-gratification. Saint Basil points out that in these times there is a widespread practice of being obedient for human reasons. This is where we use our obedience to get a promotion or earn a favor of any kind. This is how we learn to survive in the modern workplace. We become obedient to the organizations rules and norms and learn to do what we are asked for the benefit of those who are paying us. We know about obedience and have the ability for it. Our challenge is to transfer this skill we have learned to use for our own benefit, to follow God's commandments in the same way.
Saint Basil points out,
“one who forces himself in obedience for Christ alone and submits themselves to his precepts will find relief from his passions. The one who forces himself for the things of the world hoping to obtain prestige and riches along with physical pleasures is unaware of his burden. This is why the fathers rightly say that there is obedience for God's sake and obedience for the devil's sake.... As for us, let us force ourselves to demonstrate the power of obedience for the sake of God."He also shows us that the most powerful way to deal with this weakness is the practice of what we know as the Jesus Prayer. He says, if we turn to God saying with our mind,
"'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,' beyond all doubt this will obtain forgiveness of sins for him, and with this prayer also he will fulfill his entire rule, following the example of that widow of the Gospel who used to cry out to the judge day and night claiming her do (Luke 18:1–8 ). The Jesus Prayer had its beginnings in the days of the apostles. It has been practiced by the Saints since that time. Many of them have written much about this practice. It is a common practice within the Orthodox Tradition.
The practice of the Jesus prayer, does not come without effort. We have to commit ourselves to a daily prayer rule were we repeat this prayer over and over and over each and every day. By doing this this, prayer becomes ingrained, etched, programed in our physical brain, so that when it's needed, it is instantly available to us. Living a life with this prayer at the tip of our tongue is the easiest way to constantly be reconciled to our God.
The first step that we must make is to recognize of our nature. We must acknowledge that we are continually, both willfully and unknowably, using our free will to act against the Commandments of our Lord. We also must recognize that our Lord is most merciful and wants to give us help. The only way that we will receive this help is through a life of continual repentance. He has given to us the Jesus Prayer as a powerful way for us to learn to practice obedience to his commands.
More on the Jesus Prayer
Reference: Elder Basil of Poiana Marului: Spiritual Father of Saint Paisy Velichkovsky, pp 109 - 123
In our spiritual life we are asked to continually grow becoming more and more like Christ. Saint Basil the Great tells us that if we are advancing in virtue we are ever changing. This change involves an inner change. This is a change that affects our attitude towards the world, our friends and our enemies, our entire world view.
'When I was a child' it is said, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away the things of a child' (1 Cor. 13.11) Again, when he had become a man, he did not rest from his work, but 'forgetting what was behind, he strained forward to what was before, he pressed on towards the goal to the prize of the heavenly calling' (Cf. Phil. 3.13, Cf. n. 10 supra.) There is a change, therefore, of the inner man who is renewed day by day....This inner change does not come to just any one. It comes to one who is seeking change, one who seeks the love of God each and every day. It is change where we are participants, where we have to make use of our free will, and to discipline our mind and body. It is change that involves a shift in the orientation of our heart.
Saint Basil writes,
It is not the privilege of any chance person to go forward to the perfection of love and to learn to know Him who is truly beloved, but of him who has already 'put off the old man, which is being corrupted through its deceptive lusts, and has put on the new man' (Eph. 4.22, 24) which is being renewed that it may be recognized as an image of the Creator. Moreover, he who loves money and is aroused by the corruptible beauty of the body and esteems exceedingly this little glory here, since he has expended the power of loving on what is not proper, he is quite blind in regard to the contemplation of Him who is truly beloved. He is saying that we need to make sure that our motivations are not about the love of money, our the glamorization of our physical looks, or our accomplishment and recognition in worldly affairs. Instead the change we seek is only about the "perfection of love" towards our God. Our effort is to be direct towards the commandment of our Lord: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.' (Mark 12.30) Saint Basil helps us understand the meaning of "whole heart." It has to do with being a true friend of God.
The expression, 'With thy whole,' admits of no division into parts. As much love as you shall have squandered on lower objects, that much will necessarily be lacking to you from the whole. Because of this, of all people few have been called friends of God, as Moses has been described as a friend; (Cf. Exod. 33.11) likewise, John: 'But the friend' he says, 'of the bridegroom, who stands, rejoices exceedingly,' (John 3.29) that is to say, he who has a steadfast and immovable love for Christ, he is worthy of His friendship. WHo is a friend? "He who has a steadfast and immovable love for Christ." True friendship is based on true love. WHen we love someone we are continually seeking to be with them and to please them. Being a friend of God means we seek Him above all else and desire with our whole being to please Him, doing His will. It is the Lord's disciples that we can see as models for this true friendship.
Therefore, the Lord said to His disciples who were already perfect: 'No longer do I call you servants,' but friends; 'because the servant does not know what his master does.' (John 15.15) Accordingly, it is the privilege of a perfect man truly to recognize the Beloved. In reality, only holy men are the friends of God and friends to each other, but no one of the wicked or stupid is a friend. The beauty of friendship does not fall into a depraved state, since nothing shameful or incongruous can be capable of the harmonious union of friendship. Ask yourself these questions: Are you His friend? Or, are you only an acquaintance? Or, maybe even an enemy? How would you describe the intensity of your love for Him? Are you only a servant carrying out His commandments? To be His friend one needs to be ever changing with ever increasing love. He needs to be working on perfecting this friendship each and every day.
A friend of God is one who has "a steadfast and immovable love for Christ."
Reference: Saint Basil's Commentary on the Psalms, Homily 17
A common theme in the teaching of the church fathers is stillness. This is not a call to idleness but to a task that is very difficult: to quiet our minds. Our minds are too often controlled by our brain and its association with all our bodily needs. It is constantly bombarding us with thoughts, good and bad. It is these thoughts that keep us separated from God and our greatest spiritual challenge is to learn to still the mind so it is able to listen to God. If we are serious about doing God's will we have to become watchful in all our daily activities.
Saint Basil says,
As far as we are engaged in affairs outside of God, we are not able to make progress in the knowledge of God. Who, anxious about the things of the world and sunk deep in the distractions of the flesh, can be intent on the words of God and be sufficiently accurate in such mighty objects of contemplation? Do you not see that the word which fell among the thorns is choked by the thorns? (Cf. Matt. 13.7, 22) Does this mean we need to become a hermit? No, but it does mean we have to rethink how we do interact in the arena of worldly affairs. We cannot allow ourselves to become angry about events so that our mind is constantly troubled. We cannot let our bodily passions dictate our actions. We have to make sure we are not living among the "thorns." We have to stop and examine the activity that is filling our minds. Then, take actions to help it become quiet. When we begin to become watchful in our daily affairs then we will find that when we are engaged in our daily prayer there will be a calming of the activity of our brain and our mind will become less and less controlled by all its messages. As we are able to gain this stillness, then we may be blessed with God's grace and enter into a direct experience of Him.
The thorns are the pleasures of the flesh and wealth and glory and the cares of life. He who desires the knowledge of God will have to be outside of all these things, and being freed from his passions, thus to receive the knowledge of God. For, how could the thought of God enter into a soul choked by considerations which preoccupied it? Even Pharaoh knew that it was proper for one to seek God when he was unoccupied, and for this reason he reproached Israel: 'You are unoccupied, you are idle, and you say, "We shall offer prayers to the Lord, our God."' ( Cf. Exod. 5.17) Saint Basil then goes on to help us understand that this stillness is not simply leisure or idleness. Leisure can be good if its purpose is to help us gain stillness to be one with God. But when it is just to avoid boredom and instead engages in stimulating activities it is dangerous as it only fills our minds with greater distractions.
Now, leisure itself is good and useful to him who is unoccupied, since it produces quiet for the acquisition of salutary doctrines. But, the leisure of the Athenians was evil, 'who used to spend all their leisure telling or listening to something new.' (Acts 17.21) Even at the present time some imitate this, misusing the leisure of life for the discovery of some newer teaching. Such leisure is dear to unclean and wicked spirits. 'When the unclean spirit,' it is said, 'has gone out of a man, he says, "I will return to my house which I left." And when he has come, he finds the place unoccupied and swept.' (Matt 12.43, 44,) May it not be that we make our leisure a time for the adversary to enter, but let us occupy our house within, causing Christ to dwell in us beforehand through the Spirit. We can examine how we fill our leisure time. Is it used in a way that brings greater stillness? Or does it only increase our anxieties and further clutter our minds. Our television viewing should come to mind as an area to examine. Our reading matter should also be examined. Even our sporting activities can be distracting. How much time to we spend reading Scripture? How much time do we spend in prayer? How much time is the beauty of nature our focal point, contemplating the wonder of it all? How about our friends? Do they help lead us closer to God? Are there some that in their friendship and interactions are really enemies to your desire to become closer to God?
Saint Basil writes:
At all events, after giving peace to those who were up to this time troubled by the enemies, then he says, 'Have nothing to do with the enemies disturbing you, in order that in silence you may contemplate the words of truth.' For this reason also the Lord says: 'Everyone who does not renounce all that he possesses, cannot be my disciple.' (Luke 14.33) It is necessary... to be unoccupied with the pursuit of wealth, with the desire for this little glory, with the lust for pleasure, with envy and every form of wickedness against our neighbor, in order that, after our soul has found peace and is disturbed by no passion, the illumination of God, as if in a mirror, may become clear and unobscured. Seek stillness of your mind and then you will begin to have a rewarding prayer life. Orthodoxy is a way of life. How we live our life will determine how well we are able to become united with God, to become glorified and to be blessed with His grace.
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.
"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.