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CONTEMPLATION and ACTION

1) THE RHYTHM of OUR LIVES

All human experience can be conceived as a kind of alternating rhythm, a life-giving, energizing movement back and forth, between the the two poles of “activity” and “receptivity”:






ACTIVITY
speaking
searching
working

 

RECEPTIVITY
listening
perceiving
being










2) THE RHYTHM of OUR SOULS

From the perspective of the spiritual life these two poles have been referred to as  “action” and “contemplation”.  “Action” (praktiké), however, does NOT refer to any external activity, but rather to the inner asceticism (spiritual training) of discovering and rooting out vices, while growing in virtue. “Contemplation” means spiritual “vision”, what Plato called theoria, an inner apprehension by the nous, or deepest level of the human person.  To behold with theoria / contemplatio is to be changed by the experience of vision.






ACTIVITY
ACTIVE LIFE
PRAKTIKÉ
develop virtue
eliminate vice


 

RECEPTIVITY
CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE
THEORETIKÉ
behold God
transfiguration/theosis







 

3) A BETTER-NUANCED APPRECIATION
 of our INNER RHYTHM

In Christian antiquity it was well-understood that their are two principal kinds of “contemplation”:

first, theologia, an apprehension of God beyond all concept or even thought;

and, second, theoria physiké, the contemplation of God in and through creation (nature). In the Christian monastic tradition this was preeminently exercised through the study and spiritual interpretation of the bible. The practices of lectio divina, psalmody, and meditative recitation of bible verses while working were the core of the monastic “contemplative life”.

PRAKTIKÉ

THEORIA PHYSIKÉ

THEOLOGIKÉ



 



 

 ASCETICISM

 


CONTEMPLATION



of GOD IN CREATION

CONTEMPLATION
of
GOD BEYOND WORD or IMAGE

 



 

 (Purgation)

(Illumination)

(Union)

The three poles of PRAKTIKÉ, THEORIA PHYSIKÉ, and THEOLOGIKÉ came in time to be associated with the triad, Purgation, Illumination, and Union: however in Christian antiquity these were NOT successive stages in spiritual development, but three movements or capacities of the innermost self, all of which are ALWAYS present, although in different combinations at different times.

 

 

IT should be added that what may appear to be a (depressingly) recurring cycle when viewed in only two dimensions, is seen to be an ascending helix when the dimension of time is added.  The inner rhythm of our spiritual life is a “spiral staircase” on which we ascend to God.



 

 

 


4) A LESS DYNAMIC MODEL

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the desire to systematize spiritual growth caused the aforementioned triads to be described less as notes in an ever-evolving inner symphony than as stages to be successively attained and (at least in the case of the first two) transcended. The complex “spiral staircase” is unravelled into a simple stepladder.

 

 

 

 

 

Unitive
Way


 

 

THEOLOGIKÉ,

 

Illuminative
Way


CONTEMPLATION
of
GOD BEYOND WORD or IMAGE


 
Purgative
Way


THEORIA PHYSIKÉ,

CONTEMPLATION

of GOD IN CREATION

 

PRAKTIKÉ,

 

 

 ASCETICISM

 

 

 

APOPHATIC and KATAPHATIC THEOLOGY

POETIC illustrations of the meaning of these terms are found in the works of the seventeenth-century British “metaphysical” poets (R. Crenshaw, J. Donne, G. Herbert, T. Traherne, and H. Vaughan), who often drew on two complementary strands of Christian mysticism.

THE kataphatic tradition (the “way of affirmation”) emphasizes beauty that is revealed and apparent, while the apophatic tradition (the “way of negation”) dwells on glory that remains concealed, hidden from view. Word-portraits of these contrasting approaches are found in two different poems by Henry Vaughan, the seventeenth-century British metaphysical poet. The first poem, The World, is kataphatic, portraying God and creation in images of light and brightness:


I saw eternity the other night

Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright,

And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years

Driv’n by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov’d, In which the world

And all her train were hurl’d:

The World (Henry Vaughan 1621-1695)

THUS in the Christian kataphatic mystical tradition God is seen through the prism of “the many”: words, color, song, complexity, multiplicity of images and ideas all intertwine, mutually illuminating one another while celebrating the richness of beauty experienced in diversity.

IN the apophatic strand of Christian mysticism, on the other hand, God is understood as “the One” - beyond words and images, transcending every category in a radical simplicity beyond all human thought and idea. God’s uniqueness and grandeur so ovewhelm our senses and minds that God is described as solitary, radically simple; even as hidden, invisible, or “dark”. Thus Vaughan’s poem The Night:
There is in God (some say)

A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

See not all clear

O for that night! where I in him

Might live invisible and dim.


IT is possible to characterize different Christian spiritual practices according to their tendency to emphasize one end of this spectrum or the other:

THE KATAPHATIC TRADITION

(The Way of Affirmation)

[COMPLEX VARIETY; MULTIPLE IMAGES; LIGHT; LITERATURE; POETRY; HYMNODY]

 

PUBLIC WORSHIP



Sacramental Focus; Scriptural Focus

Vernacular Psalmody

(Liturgy of the Hours)

Ritual Chant

(Taizé, Gregorian Chant)

 

PRIVATE DEVOTION



Icon-Meditation; Litanies

Stations of the Cross; The Rosary

 

DISCERNMENT RETREAT



Ignatian Spirituality

 


THE APOPHATIC TRADITION

(The Way of Negation)

[SIMPLICITY, ABSENCE of IMAGES; DARKNESS; WORDLESS INTUITION]

MONOLOGISTIC (Private-) PRAYER

 

The Jesus Prayer (Hesychasm)



 

The prayer of the Cloud of Unknowing

 

“Centering Prayer”



 

“Christian Mantra”


(John Main, Lawrence Freeman)

 

“Christian Zen”



 

 

LECTIO DIVINA

(Contemplative praying of the Scriptures)

 


BOTH the kataphatic and apophatic traditions are expressed in the writings of the sixth-century mystic (pseudo-) Dionysius the Aereopagite, who in turn drew upon the earlier writings of Origen, Evagrius Ponticus, and Gregory of Nyssa. His very brief book, The Mystical Theology, has been of incalculable importance in both the Christian East and West.

The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Olivier Clément
[Part Two: Initiation For Warfare]

Chapter 2.2 The Interior Combat

Ascesis means exercise, combat. ‘Spiritual combat, harder than men’s battles’, Rimbaud says. As free human beings with a capacity to ‘create positively’, we are challenged to keep faith with the great transformation in Christ, such that we transform likewise, in the Holy Spirit, the relationship that in this world we necessarily have with material things – our genetic inheritance, psychological and social background – so that finally we transform the materials themselves.

God did not create death; he did not create evil; but he left to human beings, as to angels, freedom in everything. Thus through their freedom some rise to the highest good, others rush headlong into the depths of evil. But you, man, why do you reject your freedom?
Why this reluctance to have to make an effort, to toil, to fight, to become the artificer of your own salvation? ‘My Father is working still,’ it is written, ‘and I am working’ (John 5.17).
Are you then reluctant to work, you who were created in order to create positively?
Origen First Homily on Ezekiel, 3 (GCS 8,326).

Ascesis then is an awakening from the sleep-walking of daily life. It enables the Word to clear the silt away in the depth of the soul, freeing the spring of living waters. The Word can restore to its original brightness the tarnished image of God in us, the silver coin that has rolled in the dust but remains stamped with the king’s likeness (Luke 15.8-10). It is the Word who acts, but we have to co-operate with him, not so much by exertion of will-power as by loving attentiveness.

Each one of our souls contains a well of living water. It has in it . . . a buried image of God. It is this well . . . that the hostile powers have blocked up with earth ... But now that our Isaac [Christ] has come, let us welcome his coming and dig out our wells, clearing the earth from them, cleansing them from all defilement ... We shall find living water in them, the water of which the Lord says: ‘He who believes in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’ (John 7.38) .. .
For he is present there, the Word of God, and his work is to remove the earth from the soul of each one of you, to let your spring flow freely. This spring is in you and does not come from outside because ‘the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’ (Luke 17.21). It was not outside but in her house that the woman who had lost her silver coin found it again (Luke 15,8). She had lighted the lamp and swept out the house, and it was there that she found her silver coin. For your part, if you light your ‘lamp’, if you make use of the illumination of the Holy Spirit, if you ‘see light in his light’, you will find the silver coin in you. For the image of the heavenly king is in you. When God made human beings at the beginning he made them ‘in his own image and likeness’ (Genesis 1,26). And he does not imprint this image on the outside but within them. It could not be seen in you as long as your house was dirty, full of refuse and rubbish ... but, rid by the Word of God of that great pile of earth that was weighing you down, let the ‘image of the heavenly’ shine out in you now . . . The maker of this image is the Son of God. He is a craftsman of such surpassing skill that his image may indeed be obscured by neglect, but never destroyed by evil. The image of God remains in you always.
Origen Homily on Genesis, 1,4 (GCS 6,113-21)

The purpose of ascesis is thus to divest oneself of surplus weight, of spiritual fat. It is to dissolve in the waters of baptism, in the water of tears, all the hardness of the heart, so that it may become an antenna of infinite sensitivity, infinitely vulnerable to the beauty of the world and to the sufferings of human beings, and to God who is Love, who has conquered by the wood of the cross.

Spiritual fat is the obtuseness with which evil cloaks the intelligence.
Evagrius of Pontus Centuries, IV,3 6 (Frankenberg, 287)

Ascesis is not obedience to some abstract categorical imperative. It frees human nature to follow its deep instinct to ascend towards God. It enables a person to pass from a state ‘contrary to nature’ to a state ‘in harmony with nature’, in harmony, that is, with that human (and cosmic) material united in Christ with the godhead, without separation or confusion. This is the testimony of St Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, and of an Amma, a ‘mother’ of the desert, St Syncletica, whose teaching is marked by a very feminine directness, and always close to real life.

If justice leads us to propose some mild constraint in order to correct vices and to preserve love, do not at once fly in dismay from the path of salvation, which one cannot enter except through a narrow gate. For as you advance gradually in a holy life and in faith, your heart is enlarged and you run the way of God’s commandments in an ineffable sweetness of love.
Benedict of Nursia Rule, Prologue, 47-49 (Centenario, p. 8)

Amma Syncletica said, ‘Great endeavours and hard struggles await those who are converted, but afterwards inexpressible joy. If you want to light a fire, you are troubled at first by smoke, and your eyes water. But in the end you achieve your aim. Now it is written: "Our God is a consuming fire". So we must light the divine fire in us with tears and struggle.’


Sayings of the Desert Fathers Amma Syncletica, 2 (SO I, p. 299)

And everything is done in Christ. He excites and sustains our effort. Ascesis is a response of love. It is a positive abandonment enabling Christ to purify us ‘as gold in the fire’. For he is the goldsmith and the fire is that of the Holy Spirit.

I share everything with Christ, spirit and body, nails and resurrection.
Christ ... thou art for me my native land, my strength, my glory, everything.
Christ is my strength and my breath and the wonderful prize for my running.
It is he who enables me to run well.
I love him as my purest love because for those whom he loves he is faithful beyond all that we can conceive.
In him is my joy even if he chooses to send me some suffering, because I aspire to be purified as gold in the fire.
Gregory Nazianzen Theological Poems, (PG 37,623-4)

The Fathers discern three main stages in the spiritual way:

1. Praxis, the practice of ascesis, the purpose of which is to transform the vital energy that has gone astray and been ‘blocked’ in idolatrous ‘passions’. Praxis gives birth to the virtues, which love will then synthesize. These virtues, let us remember, are both human and divine. They represent so many participations in the Divine Names, and in the brilliance of the godhead in whose image we are made. This is not a matter, then, of mere morality. Not only do the virtues enable us to avoid idolatry — above all self-idolatry — and to gain the inner freedom that makes love possible, but they have a mystical flavour. In this chapter and the two following, it is this praxis with which we shall be mainly concerned.

2. ‘Contemplation of nature’, that is, some intimation of God in creatures and things.

3. Direct personal union with God.

Now, these three stages follow in succession in Christ. Evagrius and Maximus the Confessor relate virtue and freedom to the flesh of Christ, according to an idea that is not only Christological but also eucharistic. For Evagrius the contemplation of nature is connected with the blood of Christ (from whose pierced side the earth was sprinkled and received its transparency). For Maximus it is connected with the soul of Christ; and we know that the Bible establishes a close relation between the soul and blood.

As for union with God, Maximus describes it under two aspects. First, our union with the Spirit of Christ (the spirit being the heart and summit of his deified humanity), secondly, our transition from the humanity of Christ to his divinity. In a wholly Johannine interpretation of this latter stage, Evagrius refers to the breast of Christ; any one who rests on it and feels the beating of God’s human heart (note the reappearance of Maximus’s symbolism of spirit and heart) is initiated into the divine life, as John was when he rested on Christ’s breast.

The virtues acquired are the flesh of Christ and whoever eats it will find inner freedom.


The contemplation of creatures is the blood of Christ and whoever drinks it will be enlightened by him.
The knowledge of God is the breast of Christ and whoever rests on it will be a theologian.
Evagrius of Pontus Mirror for Monks, 118-20 (Gressman p. 163)

Whoever passes from ascesis to inner freedom is able to contemplate in the Holy Spirit the truth of creatures and things. It is as if he passed from the flesh of Christ to his soul.


Another, through this symbolic contemplation of the world, passes to the more naked mystical initiation that is ‘theology’. It is as if he passed from the soul of Christ to his spirit.
Another, through this state, is mystically led to the ineffable state where all definition is overridden by a radical negation. It is as if he passed from the spirit of Christ to his divinity.
Maximus the Confessor Ambigua (PG 91,1360)

The Fathers adopted the Platonic and Aristotelian conception of the soul’s faculties, giving it added depth. They distinguish the nous (the mind or intellect), the thumos (courage and gallantry that can turn to aggression and anger), and finally epithumia (desire that is in danger of being converted into lust). In the deep sense the nous is identified with what Mark the Ascetic calls the ‘altar of the heart’, that relationship with God that nothing in human nature can destroy, even if it is unperceived or rejected. But the light of the nous can refuse to make itself known, and it is at this subtle high point of the soul that Satanic pride is born.

If we seek some approximate equivalents in modern psychology, the domain of the nous might be that explored by Frankl and the ‘existential psychologists’, for whom the unconscious reveals a spiritual dimension that points to God. The domain of the thumos would be more like Adler’s idea of the desire, that is at the centre of the unconscious, to assert oneself, to prove one’s worth. Finally epithumia calls to mind the Freudian libido.

For most ascetical authors, although these classifications vary considerably and need to be understood in context, there exist two overriding ‘mother-passions’. One concerns the irrational faculties (thumos and epithumia), namely gluttony in the sense of fundamental greed; the other concerns nous, namely pride. Pride and greed form an alliance in a sort of metaphysical usurpation that annexes the whole being to the ego. Spiritual writers, especially Maximus the Confessor, speak here of philautia, self-love, self-centredness, that snatches the world away from God to annex it, making neighbours into things.

There is no longer the Other, nor other people, only the absolute I. ‘Whoever has philautia has all the passions’, according to Maximus.

Greed unleashes debauchery as an expression of sexuality. The two together, to satisfy themselves, breed avarice. Avarice produces depression — grief at not possessing everything — and envy — of those who possess. Thus arises anger, against anyone who threatens my goods, or who forestalls me in securing something that I covet.

Pride, in its turn, begets ‘vain glory’, the display of riches and temptations, followed by anger and depression when the sought-for admiration and approval is lacking. So we come back, through the deep desire to monopolize, to greed. The two circles meet and form an ellipse with two poles.

In the unleashing of passions others accord a privileged position to the ‘three giants’: forgetfulness, spiritual insensitivity, and a kind of ignorance or stupidity. We forget that God exists, that we can receive him at every moment; we ignore our neighbours; we lose the capacity for wonder; and we end by living like sleep-walkers.

It will do no harm to quote two passages from St John Dama-scene, who, although he falls just outside my chronological limits, has in this case the merit of summing up the earlier tradition very clearly.

We should know that according to the Fathers there are eight kinds of thought that attack us. The first is gluttony; the second, lust; the third, avarice; the fourth, depression; the fifth, anger; the sixth, despair; the seventh, vain glory; the eighth, pride.


John of Damascus The Eight Spirits of Evil (PG 95,80)

We should commit no sin if these powerful giants had not appeared at the beginning, as Mark the wisest of sages says, namely forgetfulness, spiritual insensitivity, and ignorance . . . The primary cause, the baleful mother of them all, so to say, is philautia — love of self


John of Damascus On Virtues and Vices (PG 95,88)

Perhaps however Maximus the Confessor goes deepest when he notes:

The cause of this deviation [of the natural energies into destructive passions] is the hidden fear of death.
Maximus the Confessor Questions to Thalassius, 61 (PG 90,633)

Then:


We who constitute a single nature devour one another like serpents.
Maximus the Confessor Questions to Thalassius, Introduction (PG 90,2.60)

And the reason:

Only love overcomes the fragmentation of human nature.
Maximus the Confessor Centuries on Charity, (PG 91,396)

It is now possible to understand the function of praxis. It aims to transform, in love, with the object of making love possible, the intelligence and the passions of human nature.

Praxis is a spiritual method for purifying the part of the soul that is concerned with the passions.
Evagrius of Pontus Practical Treatise, or The Monk, 78 (SC 171, i’. 666)

A prayer that is specially loved and used a great deal in the Orthodox Church, St Ephraim’s prayer, gives an idea of the working of this transformation:

Lord and Master of my life,
take far from me the spirit of laziness, discouragement, domination, and idle talk;
grant to me, thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, love;
yea, my Lord and King, grant me to see my sins, and not to judge my neighbour,
for thou art blessed for ever and ever. Amen.
Ephraim of Syria Prayer for the season of Lent in the Byzantine Rite

‘Laziness’ here is to be identified with forgetfulness, with the ‘hardness’ of heart that makes a person see no further than appearances, ‘sense-data’, what we can ‘get our teeth into’, as we vividly put it. It is the condition of the anti-poet, of the anti-mystic, of the ‘spiritual bourgeois’, to use Nicholas Berdyaev’s words. It gives rise to the spirit of domination that was the object of Christ’s third temptation, and comes close to pride. As for the ‘idle talk’, this is the ‘care-less words’ of the Gospel (Matthew 1z.36): words of lying, magic,possession, profit-making, death. More deeply; however, they are words of discouragement, of despair, of fascination with nothingness. This is the ‘accidie’ well known to the greatest ascetics, but which in our time has become the everyday expression of a general nihilism.

The second part of the prayer develops in counterpoint the operation of the virtues. Faith that overcomes philautia; chastity that is not necessarily continence, since marriage can be chaste, but rather means the integration of desire in a personal relationship; humility and patience that apply the faith to everyday matters and strengthen it with an invincible hope. And clear self-knowledge, the basis not of a guilt-inducing obsession but of a greater confidence; the refusal to judge others; and finally the seal of the blessing, exchanged between humanity and God for the sanctification of the whole of life.

The basis of praxis is the ‘keeping of the commandments’. These ‘commandments’ refer less to the Decalogue – except to the extent that Jesus disclosed and made incarnate their spiritual meaning – than to the injunctions and the actions of Christ, and above all the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. For the Beatitudes describe Christ himself, his beauty – and through him the very mystery of the God of kenosis and love. To obey Christ’s commandments is to love him, and to beseech him, aided by our very weakness, to take possession of us and transform our life with his.

Whoever knows the power of God’s commandments and under-stands the faculties of the soul is aware of the way in which the former heal the latter and are the way to true contemplation.

Evagrius of Pontus Centuries, II,19 (Frankenberg, p. 143)

We can see the essentials of the commandments in the sober and practical arrangement of the Benedictine Rule. In every line we find the example and the words of Jesus, whether he is taking up an Old Testament commandment and illuminating it or delivering the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the Last Judgment in the twenty-fifth chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me ... as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did to me’ (Matthew 2.5.39-40).

The monk becomes little by little a centre of blessing. His trust in God’s infinite mercy enables him to hope. Knowing himself to be fundamentally loved, he feels himself not only able but obliged to serve his neighbour and love his enemy. The fear of God is the discovery someone makes who is terrified by the realization that to be completely identified with this world is to be lost in a false existence. Meditation on hell enables us to understand from what Christ came to save us, provided we cling with all our strength to his salvation.

(Certain themes such as the systematic repression of negative thoughts will be studied in the fourth chapter of this part.)

What are the rules for living a good life?


In the first place to love the Lord with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s strength. Then to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Then not to kill. Not to commit adultery. Not to steal. Not to covet. Not to bear false witness. To respect all people. And not to do to others what one would not wish to have done to oneself. To deny oneself in order to follow Christ. To be master of one’s own body .. . To help the poor. To clothe the naked. To visit the sick. To bury the dead. To assist those in distress. To console the afflicted .. . Not to let anything come before the love of Christ.
Not to give rein to one’s wrath. Not to meditate revenge. Not to harbour deceit in one’s heart. Not to offer a pretended peace. Not to forsake charity. Not to swear, for fear of perjury. To speak the truth from heart and mouth. Not to render evil for evil. Not to commit injustice but to bear patiently what is done to oneself. To love one’s enemies. Not to render cursing for cursing, but rather blessing.
To endure persecution for righteousness’ sake ...To place one’s hope in God. If one sees any good in oneself, to ascribe it to God, not to oneself. To fear the day of judgment. To dread hell. To desire eternal life with all one’s heart and soul. Every day to keep death present before one’s eyes .. .
Not to hate anyone. Not to entertain jealousy. Not to give oneself up to envy .. .
To respect the aged. To love the young.In the love of Christ to pray for one’s enemies.After a disagreement, to make peace before the sun goes down.
And never to despair of God’s mercy.
Such are the tools of the spiritual art.
Benedict of Nursia Rule, IV (Centenario, pp. 20-6)

Diadochus of Photike, a great bishop, both a humanist and a contemplative, offers a more condensed form of the ‘keeping of the commandments’. The path goes from faith to love by way of hope, detachment, humility, respect for others, and chastity, meaning the integrity of spirit that makes it possible to integrate the whole being in love.

First definition: faith. A thought about God free of idolatry.
Second definition: hope. A loving pilgrimage of the spirit towards what is hoped for.
Third definition: patience. Ceaseless perseverance in seeing with the inner eye the Invisible as if it were visible.
Fourth definition: absence of avarice. To be as eager not to possess as people usually are to possess.
Fifth definition: knowledge. To disregard oneself in the effort to ascend to God.
Sixth definition: humility. Never thinking about what one deserves.
Seventh definition: absence of irascibility. The ability to avoid anger.
Eighth definition: integrity (or interior chastity). The inward sense constantly united to God.
Ninth definition: love. An increased friendliness towards those who insult us.
Tenth definition: total transformation. In the enjoyment of God the anguish of death becomes joy.
Diadochus of Photike Gnostic Chapters, Preamble (SC 5 bis, 84-5)

Maximus the Confessor emphasizes that the ‘keeping of the commandments’ makes it possible to overcome the spirit of aggression and greed, and consequently to enlighten the vital force (the thumos) and desire (the epithumia).

The believer is seized with a holy trembling.
Whoever believes thus finds humility.
Whoever finds humility receives gentleness,
and thus overcomes the influence of unnatural aggression and covetousness.
Whoever is gentle keeps the commandments.
Whoever keeps the commandments is purified.
Whoever is purified is enlightened.
That person is judged worthy to enter with the Word into the nuptial chamber of the mysteries.
Maximus the Confessor Theological Chapters, 16 (PG 90,1089)

Ascesis requires discernment. To move from the blessings of this life, which are fundamentally good, to a radical demand to go beyond them, we must first have become aware of a higher perfection, and have received a pledge of God’s ‘sweetness’ (even if later he has to withdraw it and ask us to go through the desert places). Lacking this discernment, ascesis is apt to be self-interested or Pharisaical, in danger of withering purposelessly between earth and heaven.

To eat and drink with thanksgiving to God all that is served up or prepared for one is not in any way opposed to the rule of knowledge. For ‘everything is very good’ (Genesis 1.31).
But voluntarily to abstain from what is agreeable and abundant is a sign of great discernment and higher knowledge. We do not readily despise the delights of this life if we do not taste with complete satisfaction the sweetness of God.
Diadochus of Photike Gnostic Chapters, 44 (SC 5 bis, pp. 110--11)

The whole of praxis is symbolized by the fast, provided that this includes spiritual as well as bodily fasting, as the Fathers teach. Inthe test made by God of Adam’s freedom and trust, the early Church perceived the commandment of fasting. Human beings, instead of hurling themselves on the world as on to their prey, ought to have learned to see it as a gift from God and a ladder by which to reach him. From this point of view sin now appears as exploitation and selfishness, the desire to make use of and consume the world instead of transfiguring it. Christ, by contrast, fasted for forty days in the desert to show the tempter that ‘man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4.4), and the world also is a word which comes from the mouth of God.

Fasting therefore signifies a radical change in our relation with God and with the world. God — not the self — becomes the centre, and the world is his creation, a dialogue amongst ourselves and with the Creator. Fasting prevents us from identifying ourselves with the world in order merely to possess it, and enables us to see the world in a light coming from elsewhere. Then every creature, every thing, becomes an object of contemplation. Fasting puts between ourselves and the world a wondering and respectful distance. It enables us to hunger for God as well, and to welcome our bodily hunger as an echo, the ‘sighing’ of creation.

And so for the Fathers fasting from food is inseparable from prayer and almsgiving, from the loving relationship re-established with God, and from spontaneous, inventive sharing with one’s neighbour. That was the real meaning of almsgiving in the first centuries.

Let us cherish fasting, for fasting is the great safeguard along with prayer and almsgiving. They deliver human beings from death. Just as Adam was driven out of paradise for having eaten, refusing to trust, so it is by fasting and faith that they who wish to enter paradise do so.
Athanasius of Alexandria On Virginity, 6 (PG 28,260)

Fasting lightens the body, prepares it for resurrection, and opens it to healing grace. It makes the soul more readily transparent and predisposes it to the study of Wisdom, to listening to the Word. It makes sharing and mutual help possible.

God did not give the body to be an obstacle by means of its weight ... A lighter flesh he will raise more quickly to new life.
Tertullian On Fasting, 17 (PL 2,978)

Fasting is food for the soul, nourishment of the spirit.


Ambrose of Milan On Elijah and Fasting, 2,2 (PL 14,698)

[One who fasts] feeds like Moses on familiarity with God and his word. He experiences the truth of the text, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’.


Jerome Letter 130, 10 (PL 22,1115)

We have the days of Lent devoted to fasting. We have Wednesday and Friday every week . . . And the Christian is free to fast at any time, not out of superstition but in voluntary detachment ... How could anyone in fact study the Holy Scriptures, or devote himself to knowledge and wisdom, if he were not master of his own mouth and his own belly? But there is another reason, also spiritual, that some apostles have praised in their letters . . . Blessed are they that fast for the sake of feeding the poor.


Origen Homilies on Leviticus, 10,2 (PG 12,528)

Fasting makes prayer easier.


The prayer of one who fasts is an eagle in full flight. That of the wine-bibber is made heavy with satiety and dragged down to earth.
Pseudo-Nilus (Evagrius of Pontus) On the Eight Spirits of Evil, 1(PG 791145)

Yet the emphasis is always on the whole nature of fasting and its purpose, and on moderation.

If the enemy suggests to you an extreme ascesis that risks making your body feeble and useless, you must moderate your fasting.
Athanasius of Alexandria On Virginity, 8 (PG z8,261)

Just as the body if it is burdened with a multitude of foods makes the spirit slack and lazy, so if it is enfeebled by excessive abstinence it breeds despondency and aversion in the contemplative part of the soul. It is necessary therefore to regulate the soul’s nourishment in accordance with the state of the body, so that when the body is in good health it may be suitably controlled,


and when it is weak it can be reasonably strengthened. The athlete must not be in poor physical shape.
Diadochus of Photike Gnostic Chapters, 45 (SC 5 bis, p. III)

Fasting is capable of making us bad-tempered, or of giving us the good conscience of a Pharisee. Hence the constant call for respect for one’s neighbour, for the struggle against backbiting, and also for sharing with the poor, and for the works of righteousness.

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, ‘What ought I to do?’

The old man told him, ‘Do not put any trust in your righteousness, do not worry about the past, keep a tight rein on your tongue and your belly.’


Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Anthony 6 (SO 1, p. 21)

If you fast, but fail to keep watch over your mouth so as to refrain from evil speaking and angry words, from lying and perjury; if you slander your neighbour, even if the words come from the mouth of one who is fasting, your fast will be of no avail and will be labour lost.


Athanasius of Alexandria On Virginity, 7 (PG 28,260)

What is the use of keeping a fast for forty days without considering the meaning of it? What is the use denying oneself banquets, then spending one’s time in litigation? What is the use of not eating the bread one possesses if one has to steal that of the poor? ... The Christian’s fasting ought to foster peace, not quarrels. What advantage is there in making one’s stomach holy with fasting and defiling one’s lips with lies? Brother, you will be able to come to church only if your feet are not entangled in the snares of usury. You will have the right to pray only if envy does not make an obstacle in your heart . . . The money you give to the poor man will be given in all righteousness only if. you have not extorted it from another poor man .. .

So, let us imitate as far as possible Christ’s fasting by our practice of the virtues, in order that grace may come upon us through the twofold fasting of body and spirit.
Maximus of Turin Sermon for Lent, Homily 44,8 (PL 57,135-6)

All ascesis, in fact, is magnetic attraction by love, by which we are conformed to the crucified Christ. But the cross cannot be separated from Easter and, suffering or triumphant, its meaning is always love. ‘He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked . . . He who loves his brother abides in the light’ (I John 2.6 & 10).

The first and greatest commandment is love. Thanks to love the spirit sees the original Love, namely God. For by our love we see God’s love for us, as the psalm says, ‘He teaches his ways to those who are gentle.’
Evagrius of Pontus Letter 56 (Frankenberg, p. 605)

The key to spiritual progress according to the greatest exemplars of ascesis is, therefore, evangelical love for one’s enemies. That is, first of all — something very simple but very difficult — the refusal to judge, the refusal to assert oneself by despising or condemning others. Only such an attitude of mind brings detachment and peace. The rest i. secondary.

A brother asked Abba Poimen, ‘What ought Ito do? I lack courage when I am praying alone in my cell.’
The elder told him, ‘Do not despise, condemn or blame anyone. God will grant you peace and you will meditate in tranquillity.’
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 46

Make no mistake, however. Christian ascesis is not only or even especially moderation, self-control, wisdom. It is the folly of those who in Christ fling themselves into the furnace of the spirit, of those who themselves have something in common with fire.

Abba Lot came one day to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Father, I keep my little rule to the best of my ability. I observe my modest fast and my contemplative silence. I say my prayers and do my meditation. I endeavour as far as I can to drive useless thoughts out of my heart. What more can I do?’
The elder rose to answer and lifted his hands to heaven. His fingers looked like lighted candles and he said, ‘Why not become wholly fire?’
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Joseph of Panepho, 7 (PG 65,2.29)

To climb a mountain it is not enough to have a map. A guide is necessary. Hence the importance of the ‘spiritual father’ in the tradition with which we are concerned.

The spiritual father is above all a ‘spiritual’ person, one in whom the Spirit dwells. And the Spirit makes him an icon of the divine fatherhood, a fatherhood that as we have seen is sacrificial and liberating.

Only self-mortification, long, hard and crucifying, makes possible this acquisition of the Spirit, in accordance with the monastic saying ‘Give your blood and receive the Spirit’. The ‘spiritual father’ thus obtains the spiritual gift of ‘compassion’ (in its full sense of ‘suffering with’) and along with it the gift of a humble and respectful understanding of hearts. People come to him asking for a ‘word of life’. And his word cuts open the hidden abscess, frees and awakens them, sometimes with a touch of humour, like that of the experienced monk who commanded a young brother who was eager to have his own way to recite the Lord’s Prayer, saying not ‘Thy will be done’ but ‘My will be done’. The ‘spiritual father’ is above all a man of gentleness, kindness and unlimited charity. And thus he brings home to a person who hates himself how much he is in fact loved.

The spiritual father is able give guidance because he knows the paths. His role is to keep a little way in front. He does not have to lay down rules, but be an example. He is not a master, a ‘guru’, since for Christians the only master is Christ. The destiny of the spiritual father is that of St John the Baptist: ‘He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease.’

A brother asked Abba Poimen, ‘I am living with some brothers. Do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The elder said to him, ‘No. Do your own work first, and if they want to sur-vive they will provide what is needed themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves who want me to be in charge of them.’ The elder said to him, ‘No. You must become their example, not their legislator.’


Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Poimen, 188 (SO I, p. 253)

An example like that does not draw attention to himself. Only those who wish will follow.

A young man came to see an old ascetic to be instructed in the way of perfection. But the old man said not a word to him.
The other asked him the reason for his silence. ‘Am I your superior to give you orders? Do what you see me doing if you like.’ From then on the young man imitated the ascetic in everything and learned the meaning of silence.
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in P. Evdokimov, La paternité spirituelle, ‘Contacts’, 58, 2nd quarter, 1967

Sometimes it is enough to enter into the silent radiance of a presence which, without trying, allows God to shine through.

Three brothers were in the habit of going to see the blessed Anthony every year. The first two would ask him questions about their thoughts and the salvation of the soul. But the third would keep silence without asking anything. Eventually Abba Anthony said to him, ‘You have been coming here to see me for a long time now and you never ask me any questions.’ The other replied, ‘One thing is enough for me, Father, to see you.’
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Anthony, 27 (PG 65,84)

To have complete confidence in one’s spiritual father is to know that he will keep you in his prayers, that he will concentrate on you the prayer that he extends over the whole world. For he is one of those whose prayer defends and protects the world, saves it from falling apart, and becomes the life-blood of truly creative undertakings, in the Church as in society. Being ‘poor in spirit’, meaning emptied of themselves, of their personalities, of their functions in society, they allow the suffering of the world to enter into them, they enable the power of the resurrection to pervade history, to penetrate the blind passions of human beings.

All the days that our father Pachomius was with us in the body, he prayed day and night for the salvation of our souls and those of the whole world.
Coptic Life of St Pachomius

There is no doubt that the whole world owes its continuing existence to the prayers of monks.


Rufinus of Aquileia History of the Monks, Prologue (PL 21,389)

There are tears of another sort, those we are made to shed by the hardness of heart and the sins of others. Samuel wept thus over Saul. So too in the Gospel we see our Lord weeping over Jerusalem; and in earlier times Jeremiah: ‘O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people’ (9.1) .. .


These are the tears of the righteous man crushed under the weight of the troubles, the anguish and the sorrows of this world.
This is shown clearly by the title of the psalm, ‘A prayer of the afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the Lord’. The person thus introduced is that poor man of whom the Gospel says: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.
John Cassian Conferences, IX,29 (SC 54, pp. 64-5)

Sometimes one who is advanced in the spiritual life is set free, in Christ, from the fallen and divisive limitations of space and time, and shares in the apparently incomprehensible ways of God.

Two brothers were going to see Anthony. On their journey they ran out of water and one of the two died. The other was at death’s door. At the end of his strength he lay down on the ground awaiting death. Anthony, sitting on the mountain side, called two monks who were there and urged them, ‘Take a jug of water and hurry to the road from Egypt. Two brothers were coming. One of them is already dead, and the other is going to die unless you are quick. This has just been revealed to me in prayer.’ The monks went and found the dead monk and buried him. Then they refreshed the exhausted one with a drink of water and took him to the elder. The distance was a day’s journey. Someone perhaps will ask, ‘Why did not Anthony speak before the first monk died?’ That would be wrong. It was no business of Anthony’s to determine the time of his death. That is reserved to God, and God decreed death for the one and revealed to Anthony the danger in which the other was.
Athanasius of Alexandria Life of Anthony, 59 (PG 26,927)

The tender compassion of the great spiritual guide has something maternal about it. It is as if he had become a complete human being reconciling in himself the animus and the anima, the masculine and the feminine dimensions of humanity.

Some elders came to see Abba Poimen to ask him, ‘If we see some brothers dozing in the congregation, do you want us to reprove them so that they stay awake?’ He said to them, ‘For my part, when I see a brother dozing, I lay his head on my lap and let him rest.’
Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Poimen, 92 (PG 65,344)

The spiritual father is wise. First of all he welcomes his ‘son’ into his prayer. The latter must not bother him with trivial details of his daily life but must consult him especially when a particular thought becomes persistent and obsessive. The exception occurs only at certain times when a rigorous and detailed opening of the heart proves indispensable.

Brother, nothing is to be gained by consulting your spiritual father about all the thoughts that come into your mind. Most of them quickly disappear. You need to ask about those that persist and make war on you.
Barsanuphius Letter 165 (Correspondance, Solesmes 1971, p. 141)

Brother, do not try yourself to discern the thoughts that come into your mind. You are not capable . . . If they worry you . . . cast your powerlessness before God, saying, ‘Lord, I am in thy hands, come to my help.’ ... As for the thought that persists in you and makes war on you, tell it to your Abba and by God’s grace he will cure you.


Barsanuphius Letter 142, (Correspondance, Solesmes 1971, p. 174)

The refectorian had a habit that intrigued me greatly. He always carried a notebook hanging from his belt, and I discovered that he noted in it all the thoughts that came to him so as to report them to his spiritual father every day.


John Climacus The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 4th step, 32(43) p. 39

The ‘father’ leads his ‘spiritual son’ to freedom, for

In the One
there is no longer master or disciple
but all are gods.
Evagrius Of Pontus Centuries, IV,58 (Frankenberg, p. 297)

The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Olivier Clément

[Part Three: Approaches To Contemplation]



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