Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On Practicing the Jesus Prayer by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
THE CORRECT PRACTICE of the Jesus Prayer proceeds naturally from correct notions about God, about the most holy name of the Lord Jesus, and about man's relationship to God.
God is an infinitely great and all-perfect being. God is the Creator and Renewer of men, Sovereign Master over men, angels, demons and all created things, both visible and invisible. Such a notion of God teaches us that we ought to stand prayerfully before Him in deepest reverence and in great fear and dread, directing toward Him all our attention, concentrating in our attention all the powers of the reason, heart, and soul, and rejecting distractions and vain imaginings, whereby we diminish alertness and reverence, and violate the correct manner of standing before God, as required by His majesty (John 4:23-24; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27). St. Isaac the Syrian put it marvelously: "When you turn to God in prayer, be in your thoughts as an ant, as a serpent of the earth, like a worm, like a stuttering child. Do not speak to Him something philosophical or high-sounding, but approach Him with a child's attitude" (Homily 49). Those who have acquired genuine prayer experience an ineffable poverty of the spirit when they stand before the Lord, glorify and praise Him, confess to Him, or present to Him their entreaties. They feel as if they had turned to nothing, as if they did not exist. That is natural. For when he who is in prayer experiences the fullness of the divine presence, of Life Itself, of Life abundant and unfathomable, then his own life strikes him as a tiny drop in comparison to the boundless ocean. That is what the righteous and long-suffering Job felt as he attained the height of spiritual perfection. He felt himself to be dust and ashes; he felt that he was melting and vanishing as does snow when struck by the sun's burning rays (Job 42:6).

The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine name. The power and effect of that name are divine, omnipotent and salvific, and transcend our ability to comprehend it. With faith therefore, with confidence and sincerity, and with great piety and fear ought we to proceed to the doing of the great work which God has entrusted to us: to train ourselves in prayer by using the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. "The incessant invocation of God's name," says Barsanuphius the Great, "is a medicine which mortifies not just the passions, but even their influence. Just as the physician puts medications or dressings on a wound that it might be healed, without the patient even knowing the manner of their operation, so also the name of God, when we invoke it, mortifies all passions, though we do not know how that happens" (421st Answer).

Our ordinary condition, the condition of all mankind, is one of fallen ness, of spiritual deception, of perdition. Apprehending—and to the degree that we apprehend, experiencing—that condition, let us cry out from it in prayer, let us cry in spiritual humility, let us cry with wails and sighs, let us cry for clemency! Let us turn away from all spiritual gratifications, let us renounce all lofty states of prayer of which we are unworthy and incapable! It is impossible "to sing the Lord's song in a strange land" (Ps. 136:5), in a heart held captive by passions. Should we hear an invitation to sing, we can know surely that it emanates "from them that have taken us captive" (Ps. 136:3). "By the waters of Babylon" tears alone are possible and necessary (Ps. 136:1).

This is the general rule for practicing the Jesus Prayer, derived from the Sacred Scriptures and the works of the Holy Fathers, and from certain conversations with genuine men of prayer. Of the particular rules, especially for novices, I deem the following worthy of mention.

St. John of the Ladder counsels that the mind should be locked into the words of the prayer and should be forced back each time it departs from it (Step XXVIII, ch. 17). Such a mechanism of prayer is remarkably helpful and suitable. When the mind, in its own manner, acquires attentiveness, then the heart will join it with its own offering—compunction. The heart will empathize with the mind by means of compunction, and the prayer will be said by the mind and heart together. The words of the prayer ought to be said without the feast hurry. even lingering, so that the mind can lock itself into each word. St. John of the Ladder consoles and instructs the coenobitic brethren who busy themselves about monastic obedience's and encourages them thus to persevere in prayerful asceticism: "From those monks who are engaged in performing obedience's," he writes, "God does not expect a pure and undistracted prayer. Despair not should inattention come over you! Be of cheerful spirit and constantly compel your mind to return to itself! For the angels alone are not subject to any distraction" (Step IV, ch. 93). "Being enslaved by passions, let us persevere in praying to the Lord: for all those who have reached the state of passionless ness did so with the help of such indomitable prayer. If, therefore, you tirelessly train your mind never to stray from the words of the prayer, it will be there even at mealtime. A great champion of perfect prayer has said: 'I had rather speak five words with my understanding . . . than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue' (I Cor. 14:19). Such prayer," that is, the
grace-given prayer of the mind in the heart, which shuns imaginings, "is not characteristic of children; wherefore we who are like children, being concerned with the perfection of our prayer," that is, the attentiveness which is acquired by locking the mind into the words of the prayer, "must pray a great deal. Quantity is the cause of quality. The Lord gives pure prayer to him who, eschewing laziness, prays much and regularly in his own manner, even if it is marred by inattention" (The Ladder, Step XXVI11, ch. 21).

Novices need more time in order to train themselves in prayer. It is impossible to reach this supreme virtue shortly after entering the monastery or following the first few steps in asceticism. Asceticism needs both time and gradual progress, so that the ascetic can mature for prayer in every respect. In order that a flower might bloom or the fruit grow on a tree, the tree must first be planted and left to develop; thus also does prayer grow out of the soil of other virtues and nowhere else. The monk will not quickly gain mastery of his mind, nor will he in a short time accustom it to abide in the words of the prayer as if enclosed in a prison. Pulled hither and thither by its acquired predilections, impressions, memories and worries, the novice's mind constantly breaks its salvific chains and strays from the narrow to the wide path. It prefers to wander freely, to stroll in the regions of falsehood in association with the fallen spirits, to stray aimlessly and mindlessly over great expanses, though this be damaging to him and cause him great loss. The passions, those moral infirmities of human nature, are the principal cause of inattentiveness and absentmindedness in prayer. The more they are weakened in a man, the less is he distracted in spirit when graying. The passions are brought under control and mortified little by little by means of true obedience, as well as by self-reproach and humility—these are the virtues upon which successful prayer is built. Concentration, which is accessible to man, is granted by God in good time to every struggler in piety and asceticism who by persistence and ardor proves the sincerity of his desire to acquire prayer.

The Russian hieromonk Dorotheus, a great instructor in spiritual asceticism, who was in this respect very much like St. Isaac the Syrian, counsels those who are learning the Jesus Prayer to recite it aloud at first. The vocal prayer, he says, will of itself turn into the mental.

"Mental prayer," he continues, "is the result of much vocal prayer, and mental prayer leads to the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer should not be said in a loud voice but quietly, just audibly enough that you can hear yourself.,' It is particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when assailed by distraction, grief, spiritual despondency and laziness. The vocal Jesus Prayer gradually awakens the soul from the deep moral slumber into which grief and spiritual despair are wont to thrust it. It is also particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when attacked by images, appetites of the flesh, and anger; when their influence causes the blood to boil. It should be practiced when peace and tranquility vanish from the heart, and the mind hesitates, becomes weak, and—so to speak—goes into upheaval because of the multitude of unnecessary thoughts and images. The malicious princes of the air, whose presence is hidden to physical sight but who are felt by the soul through their influences upon it, hearing as they mount their attack the name of the Lord Jesus—which they dread—will become undecided and confused, and will take fright and withdraw immediately from the soul. The method of prayer which the hieromonk suggests is very simple and easy. It should be combined with the method of St. John of the Ladder: the Jesus Prayer should be recited loud enough that you can hear yourself, without any hurry, and by locking the mind into the words of the prayer. This last, the hieromonk enjoins upon all who pray by Jesus' name.

The method of prayer propounded by St. John of the Ladder should be adhered to even when one is practicing the method which was explained by the divine St. Nilus of Sora, in the second homily of his monastic constitution. The divine Nilus borrowed his method from the Greek Fathers, Symeon the New Theologian and Gregory of Sinai, and simplified it somewhat. Here is what St. Nilus says: "Experience will soon confirm as correct and very beneficial for mental concentration the recommendation of these holy fathers regarding restraint in breathing, i.e. that one should not breathe with great frequency." Some, without understanding this method, exaggerate its importance and restrain their breath beyond reasonable measure, thereby injuring their lungs and at the same time inflicting harm upon their souls by assenting to such a mistake. All impulsive and extreme actions are but obstacles to success in prayer, which develops only when nurtured by the tranquil, quiet and pious disposition of both soul and body. "Whatever is immoderate comes from the demons," says St. Pimen the Great.

The novice who is studying the Jesus Prayer will advance greatly by observing a daily rule comprising a certain number of full prostrations and bows from the waist, depending upon the strength of each individual. These are all to be performed without any hurry, with a repentant feeling in the soul and with the Jesus Prayer on the lips during each prostration. An example of such prayer may be seen in the "Homily on Faith" by St. Symeon the New Theologian. Describing the daily evening prayers of the blessed youth George, St. Symeon says: "He imagined that he was standing before the Lord Himself and prostrating himself before His holy feet, and he tearfully implored the Lord to have mercy upon him. While praying, he stood motionless like a pillar and bade his feet and the other parts of his body to stay still, especially the eyes, which were restrained from moving curiously in all directions. He stood with great fear and trepidation and denied himself sleep, despondency and laziness." Twelve prostrations suffice in the beginning. Depending upon one's strength, ability and circumstances, that number can be constantly increased. But when the number of prostrations increases, one should be careful to preserve the quality of one's prayer, so that one not be carried away by a preoccupation with the physical into fruitless, and even harmful, quantity. The bows warm up the body and somewhat exhaust it, and this condition facilitates attention and compunction. But let us be watchful, very watchful, lest the state pass into a bodily preoccupation which is foreign to spiritual sentiments and recalls our fallen nature! Quantity, useful as it is when accompanied by the proper frame of mind and the proper objective, can be just as harmful when it leads to a preoccupation with the physical. The latter is recognized by its fruits which also distinguish it from spiritual ardor. The fruits of physical preoccupation are conceit, self-assurance, intellectual arrogance: in a word, pride in its various forms, all of which are easy prey to spiritual deception. The fruits of spiritual ardor are repentance, humility, weeping and tears. The rule of prostrations is best observed before going to sleep: then, after the cares of the day have passed, it can be practiced longer and with greater concentration. But in the morning and during the day it is also useful, especially for the young' to practice prostrations moderately—from twelve to twenty bows. Prostrations stimulate a prayerful state of the mind and mortify the body as well as support and strengthen fervor in prayer.

These suggestions are, I believe, sufficient for the beginner who is eager to acquire the Jesus Prayer. "Prayer," said the divine St. Meletius the Confessor, "needs no teacher. It requires diligence, effort and personal ardor, and then God will be its teacher." The Holy Fathers, who have written many works on prayer in order to impart correct notions and faithful guidance to those desiring to practice it, propose and decree that one must engage in it actively in order to gain experiential knowledge, without which verbal instruction, though derived from experience, is dead, opaque, incomprehensible and totally inadequate. Conversely, he who is carefully practicing prayer and who is already advanced in it, should refer often to the writings of the Holy Fathers about prayer in order to check and properly direct himself, remembering that even the great Paul, though possessing the highest of all testimonies for his Gospel—that of the Holy Spirit—nevertheless went to Jerusalem where he communicated to the apostles who had gathered there the Gospel that he preached to the gentiles, "lest by any means," as he said, "I should run, or had run, in vain " (Gal. 2:2).

Translated by Stephen Karganovic from The Alphabet of Orthodox Life, Belgrade, 1974. This appeared in Orthodox Life, vol. 28, no. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1978, pp. 9-14

A beautiful ancient prayer to the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos

Beneath your compassion
we take refuge, Theotokos*.
Our petitions do not despise in time of trouble,
but from dangers ransom us,
Only Holy, Only Blessed.

*'Mother of God'

Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov on the Love of God.


by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867)
Bishop Ignatius was a prominent Orthodox spiritual writer of nineteenth century Russia. Born of a noble family, he completed an education in engineering in St. Petersburg under the patronage of Emperor Nicholas I and was destined for a brilliant worldly career. Later, as an officer, he chose instead to follow the spiritual yearning of his soul and receive the monastic tonsure, as a disciple of the famous Elder Lev of Optina Hermitage. Well grounded in the ascetic writings of the Holy Fathers, Bishop Ignatius captured the spirit of the ancient patristic and monastic traditions of the Orthodox Church in his own works, written in the most eloquent language of the time. His best known work, The Arena (An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism), which comprises the fifth volume of his Ascetical Works, is an indispensable treasure for seekers of spiritual life today. The Arena was published by Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordonville, NY. This article was sent to us, and presumably translated, by an unknown monk.
Love God as He commanded you to love Him, and not as self-deluded daydreamers think they love Him.
Do not fabricate raptures for yourself, do not excite your nerves, do not inflame yourself with a material fire, with the fire of your blood. The sacrifice pleasing to God is humility of heart, contrition of spirit. With wrath does God turn away from sacrifices offered with self-confident presumption, with a proud opinion of oneself, though the sacrifice be a whole burnt offering.
Pride excites the nerves, heats the blood, arouses daydreaming, enlivens the life of the fall; humility calms the nerves, subdues the motion of the blood, eliminates daydreaming, mortifies falls, enlivens the life in Jesus Christ.
"Obedience" before the Lord "is greater than good sacrifice, and submission than the fat of rams," said the Prophet to the Israelite king who had dared to offer to God a wrong sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22). When you wish to offer to God the sacrifice of love, do not offer it self-willfully, from a thoughtless impulse; offer it with humility, in that time and that place which the Lord commanded.
The spiritual place on which alone spiritual sacrifices are commanded to be offered is humility. (Saying of St. Pimen the Great from the Alphabetical Patericon).
The Lord marked the one who loves and the one who does not love by true and exact signs: "If a man love Me, he will keep My word. He that loveth Me not keepeth not My sayings"(John 14:23,24).
Do you wish to learn the love of God? Shun every deed, word, thought, and feeling forbidden by the Gospel. By your enmity towards sin which is so hated by All-holy God, you will show and prove your love for God. When due to weakness it happens that you fall into transgressions, heal them at once by repentance. But it is better to strive not to allow yourself even these transgressions, by strict watchfulness over yourself.
Do you wish to learn the love of God? Assiduously learn the commandments of the Lord in the Gospel, and strive to fulfill them in very deed. Strive to turn the Gospel virtues into habits, into your qualities. For a person who loves, it is natural to fulfill the will of the beloved with exactness.
"I have loved Thy commandments more than gold and topaz: therefore, I directed myself toward all Thy commandments; every path of unrighteousness have I hated," says the Prophet (Ps. 118:127,128). Such conduct is indispensable for maintaining fidelity to God. Fidelity is the unalterable condition of love. Without this condition, love is dissolved.
By the constant shunning of evil and fulfilling of the Gospel virtues—which comprises the whole Gospel moral teaching—we attain the love of God. And by this same means do we abide in the love of God: "If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love," said the Savior (John 15:10).
The perfection of love consists in union with God; advancing in love is joined with inexpressible spiritual consolation, delight, and enlightenment. But in the beginning of the struggle, the disciple of love must undergo a violent warfare with himself, with his own deeply damaged nature: evil, which through the fall became innate to our nature, has become for it a law, warring and revolting against the Law of God, against the law of holy love.
Love of God is founded on love of one’s neighbor. When the remembrance of wrongs is obliterated in you: then you are close to love. When your heart is overshadowed by holy, grace-given peace towards all humanity: then you are at the very doors of love.
But these doors are opened by the Holy Spirit alone. Love of God is a gift from God in a person who has prepared himself to receive this gift by purity of heart, mind, and body. The degree of the gift is according to the degree of preparation: because God, even in His mercy, is just.
Love of God is entirely spiritual: "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6).
"That which is born of the flesh is flesh" (John 3:6): carnal love, as something born of flesh and blood, has material, corrupt properties. It is inconstant, changeable: its fire is completely dependent on matter.
Hearing from Scripture that our God is a fire (Heb.12:29), that love is a fire, and feeling in yourself a fire of natural love, do not think that this is one and the same fire. No! These fires are at enmity with one another and are swallowed up by one another (Ladder, steps 3 and 15). "Let us serve in a manner well-pleasing to God, with reverence and fear; for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:28,29).
Natural love, fallen love heats a person’s blood, excites his nerves, arouses daydreaming; holy love cools the blood, calms both soul and body, draws the inner man towards prayerful silence, immerses him in rapture through humility and spiritual delight.
Many ascetics, having taken natural love for Divine love, excited their blood, and excited their daydreams also. The condition of excitement passed very easily into a condition of frenzy. Many took those who were in a state of excitement and frenzy for persons filled with grace and holiness, while they were actually unfortunate victims of self-delusion.
There were many such ascetics in the Western Church from the time it fell into papism, in which Divine properties are blasphemously ascribed to a man, and veneration which is due and fitting to God alone is given to a man; many of these ascetics wrote books from their excited condition in which frenzied self-delusion seemed to them to be divine love, in which their disordered imagination painted for them a multitude of visions which flattered their self-love and pride.
Son of the Eastern Church! Shun the reading of such books, avoid following the precepts of those who are self-deluded. Guided by the Gospel and the holy Fathers of the true Church, ascend with humility to the spiritual height of Divine love by the means of fulfilling Christ’s commandments in deed.
Know firmly that love for God is the highest gift of the Holy Spirit, and a person can only prepare himself, through purity and humility, for the receiving of this great gift, through which mind and heart and body are changed.
In vain is the labor, fruitless is it and harmful, when we seek to discover in ourselves high spiritual gifts prematurely: merciful God gives them in His own time, to the constant, patient, humble fulfillers of the Gospel commandments. Amen.

Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov on the Basics of the Spiritual Life


Part I

For the commemoration of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, April 30/May 13
Icon of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov with life.Icon of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov with life.
The essence of any religion is contained in the spiritual life, which is its most sacred side. Any entrance into this life demands not only zeal, but also knowledge of the laws of spiritual life. Zeal not according to knowledge is a poor helper, as we know. Vague, indistinct conceptions of this main side of religious life lead the Christian, and especially the ascetic, to grievous consequences; in the best case to fruitless labors, but more often to self-opinion and spiritual, moral, and psychological illness. The most widespread mistake in religious life is the substitution of its spiritual side (fulfillment of the Gospel commandments, repentance, struggle with the passions, love for neighbor) with the external side—fulfillment of Church customs and rites. As a rule, such an approach to religion makes a person outwardly righteous, but inwardly a prideful Pharisee, hypocrite, and rejected by God—a “saint of satan.” Therefore it is necessary to know the basic principles of spiritual life in Orthodoxy.
Of great help in this is an experienced guide who sees the human soul. But such guides were very rare even in ancient times, as the Fathers testify. It is even more difficult to find such guides in our times. The Holy Fathers foresaw that in the latter times there would be a famine of the word of God (even though the Gospels are now printed abundantly!) and instructed sincere seekers in advance to conduct their spiritual lives by means of “living under the guidance of patristic writings, with the counsel of their contemporary brothers who are successfully progressing [in spiritual life].
These words belong to one of the most authoritative Russian spiritual instructors and writers of the nineteenth century, Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807–1867). His writings are a kind of Orthodox ascetical encyclopedia representing those very patristic writings, but are of particular value to the modern-day Christian.
This value comes from the fact that his writings are based upon his scrupulous study of patristic writings, tried in the furnace of personal ascetical experience, and provide a clear exposition of all the most important questions of spiritual life, including the dangers that can be met along the way. They set forth the patristic experience of the knowledge of God applicable to the psychology and strength of people living in an epoch closer to us both in time and degree of secularization.[1]
Here we shall present only a few of the more important precepts of his teaching on the question of correct spiritual life.
1. Correct Thoughts
“People usually consider thought to be something of little importance, and therefore they are very undiscerning in their acceptance of thoughts. However, everything good comes from the acceptance of correct thoughts, while everything evil comes from the acceptance of deceitful thoughts. Thought is like the helm of a ship. A small wheel and an insignificant board dragging behind a great vessel decide its direction and, more often than not, its fate” (4:509).[2] Thus wrote Saint Ignatius, emphasizing the exceptional significance that our thoughts, views, and theoretical knowledge as a whole have for spiritual life. Not only correct dogmatic faith and Gospel morals, but also knowledge and rigorous observation of spiritual laws determine success in the complex process of true rebirth of the passionate, “fleshly” (Rom 8:5), old man (Eph 4:22) into the new man (Eph 4:24).
However, a theoretical understanding of this question is not as simple as it would seem at first glance. The many different so-called “spiritual ways of life” that are now being offered to man from all sides are one of the illustrations of the complexity of this problem.
Therefore, a task of the utmost importance arises: finding the more essential indications and qualities of true spirituality, which would allow one to differentiate it from all the possible forms of false spirituality, mysticism, and prelest. This has been sufficiently explained by the Church’s 2,000 years of experience in the person of its saints; but modern man, raised in a materialistic and unspiritual civilization, runs up against no little difficulty in assimilating it.
Patristic teachings have always corresponded to the level of those to whom they are directed. The Fathers of the Church never wrote “just for the sake of it” or “for science.” Many of their counsels, directed at ascetics of high contemplative life and even to so-called beginners, no longer even remotely correspond to the spiritual strength of the modern Christian. Furthermore, the variety, ambiguity, and at times even contradictoriness of these counsels that naturally occur due to the varying spiritual levels of those who seek them can disorient the inexperienced. It is very difficult to avoid these dangers when studying the Holy Fathers without knowing at least the more important principles of spiritual life. On the other hand, a correct spiritual life is unthinkable without patristic guidance. Before this seemingly insurmountable impasse, we can see the full significance of the spiritual inheritance of those fathers, most of whom are closer to us in time, who “restated” this earlier patristic experience of spiritual life in a language more accessible to a modern man little acquainted with this life, who usually has neither a capable guide nor sufficient strength.
The works of Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov are among the best of these “restatements,” which provide an impeccably reliable “key” to understanding the teachings of great laborers in the science of sciences—the ascetics.
2. What is the Meaning of Faith in Christ?
Here is what Saint Ignatius writes about this:
The beginning of conversion to Christ consists in coming to know one’s own sinfulness and fallenness. Through this view of himself, a person recognizes his need for a Redeemer, and approaches Christ through humility, faith, and repentance (4:277). He who does not recognize his sinfulness, fallenness, and peril cannot accept Christ or believe in Christ; he cannot be a Christian. Of what need is Christ to the person who himself is wise and virtuous, who is pleased with himself, and considers himself worthy of all earthly and heavenly rewards? (4:378).
Within these words the thought involuntarily draws attention to itself that the awareness of one’s own sinfulness andthe repentance proceeding from it are the first conditions for receiving Christ—that is, the belief that Christ came, suffered, and was resurrected is the beginning of conversion to Christ, for the devils also believe, and tremble (Jas 2:19), and from the knowledge of one’s sinfulness comes true faith in Him.
The holy hierarch’s thought shows the first and main position of spiritual life, which so often slips away from the attention of the faithful and shows the true depth of its Orthodox understanding. The Christian, as it happens, is not at all the one who believes according to tradition or who is convinced of the existence of God through some form of evidence, and, of course, the Christian is not at all one who goes to Church and feels that he is “higher than all sinners, atheists, and non-Christians.” No, the Christian is the one who see his own spiritual and moral impurity, his own sinfulness, sees that he is perishing, suffers over this, and therefore he is inwardly free to receive the Savior and true faith in Christ. This is why, for example, Saint Justin the Philosopher wrote, “He is the Logos in Whom the whole human race participates. Those who live according to the Logos are Christians in essence, although they consider themselves to be godless: such were Socrates and Heraclites, and others among the Hellenes.… In the same way those who lived before us in opposition to the Logos were dishonorable, antagonistic to Christ … while those who lived and still live according to Him are Christians in essence.”[3] This is why so many pagan peoples so readily accepted Christianity.
On the contrary, whoever sees himself as righteous and wise, who sees his own good deeds, cannot be a Christian and is not one, no matter where he stands in the administrative and hierarchical structure of the Church. Saint Ignatius cites the eloquent fact from the Savior’s earthly life that He was received with tearful repentance by simple Jews who admitted their sins, but was hatefully rejected and condemned to a terrible death by the “intelligent,” “virtuous,” and respectable Jewish elite—the high priests, Pharisees (zealous fulfillers of Church customs, rules, etc.), and scribes (theologians).
They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick (Mt 9:12), says the Lord. Only those who see the sickness of their soul and know that it cannot be cured through their own efforts come to the path of healing and salvation, because they are able to turn to the true Doctor Who suffered for them—Christ. Outside of this state, which is called “knowing oneself” by the Fathers, normal spiritual life is impossible. “The entire edifice of salvation is built upon the knowledge and awareness of our infirmity,” writes Saint Ignatius (1:532). He repeatedly cites the remarkable words of Saint Peter of Damascus: “The beginning of the soul’s enlightenment and mark of its health is when the mind begins to see its own sins, numbering as the sands of the sea” (2:410).
Therefore, Saint Ignatius exclaims over and over,
Humility and the repentance which comes from it are the only conditions under which Christ is received! Humility and repentance are the only price by which the knowledge of Christ is purchased! Humility and repentance make up the only moral condition from which one can approach Christ, to be taken in by Him! Humility and repentance are the only sacrifice which requites, and which God accepts from fallen man (cf. Ps 50:18–19). The Lord rejects those who are infected with pride, with a mistaken opinion of themselves, who consider repentance to be superfluous for them, who exclude themselves from the list of sinners. They cannot be Christians (4:182–183).
3. Know Yourself
How does a person obtain this saving knowledge of himself, his “oldness,” a knowledge which opens to him the full, infinite significance of Christ’s Sacrifice? Here is how Saint Ignatius answers this question.
I do not see my sin because I still labor for sin. Whoever delights in sin and allows himself to taste of it, even if only in his thoughts and sympathy of heart, cannot see his own sin. He can only see his own sin who renounces all friendship with sin; who has gone out to the gates of his house to guard them with bared sword—the word of God; who with this sword deflects and cuts off sin, in whatever form it might approach. God will grant a great gift to those who perform this great task of establishing enmity with sin; who violently tear mind, heart, and body away from it. This gift is the vision of one’s own sins (2:122).
In another place he gives the following practical advice: “If one refuses to judge his neighbors, his thoughts naturally begin to see his own sins and weaknesses which he did not see while he was occupied with the judgment of his neighbors” (5:351). Saint Ignatius expresses his main thought on the conditions for self-knowledge by the following remarkable words of Saint Symeon the New Theologian: “Painstaking fulfillment of Christ’s commandments teaches man about his infirmity” (4:9); that is, it reveals to him the sad picture of what really resides in his soul and what actually happens there.
The question of how to obtain the vision of one’s sins, or the knowledge of one’s self, one’s old man, is at the center of spiritual life. Saint Ignatius beautifully showed its logic: only he who sees himself as one perishing has need of a Savior; on the contrary, the “healthy” (cf. Mt 9:12) have no need of Christ. Therefore, if one wants to believe in Christ in an Orthodox way, this vision becomes the main purpose of his ascetic labor, and at the same time, the main criteria for its authenticity.
4. Good Deeds
On the contrary, ascetic labors, or podvigs—and any virtues that do not lead to such a result are in fact false podvigs—and life becomes meaningless. The Apostle Paul speaks of this in his epistle to Timothy, when he says, And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully (2 Tm 2:5). Saint Isaac the Syrian speaks about this even more specifically: “The recompense is not for virtue, nor for toil on account of virtue, but for humility which is born of both. If humility is lacking, then the former two are in vain.”[4]
This statement opens yet another important page in the understanding of spiritual life and its laws: neither podvigs nor labors in and of themselves can bring a person the blessings of the Kingdom of God, which is within us (Lk 17:21), but only the humility which comes from them. If humility is not gained, all ascetic labors and virtues are meaningless. However, only labor in the fulfillment of Christ’s commandments teaches man humility. This is how one complex theological question on the relationship between faith and good works in the matter of salvation is explained.
Saint Ignatius devotes great attention to this question. He sees it in two aspects: first, in the sense of understanding the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice; and second, with respect to Christian perfection. His conclusions, proceeding as they do from patristic experience, are not ordinary subjects for classroom theology.
He writes, “If good deeds done according to feelings of the heart brought salvation, then Christ’s coming would have been superfluous” (1:513). “Unfortunate is the man who is satisfied with his own human righteousness, for he does not need Christ” (4:24). “Such is the natural quality of all bodily podvigs and visible good deeds. If we think that doing them is our sacrifice to God, and not just reparation for our immeasurable debt, then our good deeds and podvigs become the parents in us of soul-destroying pride” (4:20).
Saint Ignatius even writes,
The doer of human righteousness is filled with self-opinion, high-mindedness, and self-deception … he repays with hatred and revenge anyone who dares to open his mouth to pronounce the most well-founded and good-intentioned contradiction of his righteousness. He considers himself worthy, most worthy of both earthly and heavenly rewards (4:47).
From this we can understand the saint’s call, which is:
Do not seek Christian perfection in human virtues. It is not there; it is mystically preserved in the Cross of Christ (4:477–478).
This thought directly contradicts the widespread belief that so-called “good deeds” are always good and aid us in our salvation, regardless of what motivates a person to do them. In reality, righteousness and virtue of the old and new man are not mutually supplementary, but rather mutually exclusive. The reason for this is sufficiently obvious. Good works are not an end, but a means for fulfilling the supreme commandment of love. But they can also be done calculatingly, hypocritically, and out of ambition and pride. (When a person sees the needy but instead gilds domes on churches, or builds a church where there no real need of one, it is clear that he is not serving God, but his own vanity.) Deeds that are not done for the fulfillment of the commandments blind a person by their significance, puff him up, make him great in his own eyes, exalt his ego, and thereby separate him from Christ. But the fulfillment of the commandments of love for neighbor reveals a person’s passions to himself, such as: man-pleasing, self-opinion, hypocrisy, and so on. It reveals to him that he cannot do any good deed without sin. This humbles a person and leads him to Christ. Saint John the Prophet said, “True labor cannot be without humility, for labor in and of itself is vain and accounted as nothing.”[5]
In other words, virtues and podvigs can also be extremely harmful if they are not founded upon the knowledge of hidden sin in the soul and do not lead to an even deeper awareness of it. Saint Ignatius instructs, “One must first see his sin, then cleanse himself of it with repentance and attain a pure heart, without which it is impossible to perform a single good deed in all purity” (4:490). “The ascetic,” he writes, “has only just begun to do them [good deeds] before he sees that he does them altogether insufficiently, impurely.… His increased activity according to the Gospels shows him ever more clearly the inadequacy of his virtues, the multitude of his diversions and motives, the unfortunate state of his fallen nature.… He recognizes his fulfillment of the commandments as only a distortion and defilement of them” (1:308–309). Therefore, the saints, he continues, “cleansed their virtues with floods of tears, as if they were sins” (2:403).
5. Untimely Dispassion is Dangerous.
Let us turn out attention to yet another important law of spiritual life. It consists in “the like interrelationship of virtues and of vices” or, to put it another way, in the strict consequentiality and mutual conditioning of the acquisition of virtues as well as the action of passions. Saint Ignatius writes, “Because of this like relationship, voluntary submission to one good thought leads to the natural submission to another good thought; acquisition of one virtue leads another virtue into the soul which is like unto and inseparable from the first. The reverse is also true: voluntary submission to one sinful thought brings involuntarily submission to another; acquisition of one sinful passion leads another passion related to it into the soul; the voluntary committing of one sin leads to the involuntary fall into another sin born of the first. Evil, as the fathers say, cannot bear to dwell unmarried in the heart” (5:351).
This is a serious warning! How often do Christians, not knowing this law, carelessly regard the so-called “minor” sins, committing them voluntarily—that is, without being forced into them by passion. And then they are perplexed when they painfully and desperately, like slaves, involuntarily fall into serious sins which lead to serious sorrows and tragedies in life.
Just how necessary it is in spiritual life to strictly observe the law of consequentiality is shown by the following words of a most experienced instructor of spiritual life, Saint Isaac the Syrian (Homily 72), and cited by Saint Ignatius: “It is the good will of the most wise Lord that we reap our spiritual bread in the sweat of our brow. He established this law not out of spite, but rather so that we would not suffer from indigestion and die. Every virtue is the mother of the one following it. If you leave the mother who gives birth to the virtue and seek after her daughter, without having first acquired the mother, then these virtues become as vipers in the soul. If you do not turn them away, you will soon die” (2:57–58). Saint Ignatius warns sternly in connection with this, “Untimely dispassion is dangerous! It is dangerous to enjoy Divine grace before the time! Supernatural gifts can destroy the ascetic who has not learned of his own infirmity” (1:532).
These are remarkable words! To someone who is spiritually inexperienced the very thought that a virtue can be untimely, never mind deadly to the soul, “like a viper,” would seem strange and almost blasphemous. But such is the very reality of spiritual life; such is one of its strictest laws, which was revealed by the vast experience of the saints. In the fifth volume of his Works, which Saint Ignatius called An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, in the tenth chapter entitled, “On caution in the reading of books on monastic life,” he states openly, “The fallen angel strives to deceive monks and draw them to destruction, offering them not only sin in its various forms, but also lofty virtues that are not natural to them” (5:54).
6. Correct Prayer
These thoughts have a direct relationship to understanding a very important Christian activity: prayer. Saying as do all the saints that “Prayer is the mother of the virtues and the door to all spiritual gifts” (2:228), Saint Ignatius emphatically points to the conditions that must be met in order to make prayer the mother of the virtues. Violating these conditions makes prayer fruitless at best; but more often, it makes it the instrument of the ascetic’s precipitous fall. Some of these conditions are well known. Whoever does not forgive others will not be forgiven himself. “Whoever prays with his lips but is careless about his heart prays to the air and not to God; he labors in vain, because God heeds the mind and heart, and not copious words,” says Hieromonk Dorotheus, a Russian ascetic for whom Saint Ignatius had great respect (2:266).
However, Saint Ignatius pays particular attention to the conditions for the Jesus Prayer. In light of its great significance for every Christian, we present a brief excerpt from the remarkable article by Saint Ignatius, “On the Jesus Prayer: A Talk with a Disciple.”
In exercising the Jesus prayer there is its beginning, its gradual progression, and its endless end. It is necessary to start the exercise from the beginning, and not from the middle or the end.…
Those who begin in the middle are the novices who have read the instructions … given by the hesychastic fathers … and accept this instruction as a guide in their activity, without thinking it through. They begin in the middle who, without any sort of preparation, try to force their minds into the temple of the heart and send up prayers from there. They begin from the end who seek to quickly unfold in themselves the grace-filled sweetness of prayer and its other grace-filled actions.
One should begin at the beginning; that is, pray with attention and reverence, with the purpose of repentance, taking care only that these three qualities be continually present with the prayer.… In particular, most scrupulous care should be taken to establish morals in accordance with the teachings of the Gospels.… Only upon morality brought into good accord with the Gospel commandments … can the immaterial temple of God-pleasing prayer be built. A house built upon sand is labor in vain—sand is easy morality that can be shaken (1:225–226).
From this citation it can be seen how attentive and reverently careful one must be with respect to the Jesus prayer. It should be prayed not just any way, but correctly. Otherwise, its practice will not only cease to be prayer, it can even destroy the one practicing it. In one of his letters, Saint Ignatius talks about how the soul should be disposed during prayer: “Today I read the saying of Saint Sisoes the Great which I have always especially liked; a saying which has always been according to my heart. A certain monk said to him, ‘I abide in ceaseless remembrance of God.’ Saint Sisoes replied to him, “That is not great; it will be great when you consider yourself worse than all creatures.’ The ceaseless remembrance of God is a great thing!” Saint Ignatius continues. “But this is a very dangerous height when the ladder that leads to it is not founded upon the sturdy rock of humility” (4:497).
(In connection with this it must be noted that “the sign of ceaseless and self-moving Jesus prayer is by no means a sign that the prayer is grace-filled, because [such qualities] do not guarantee … those fruits that always indicate that it is grace-filled.” “Spiritual struggle, the result and purpose of which is the acquisition of HUMILITY … is [in this case] substituted by some [interim] purpose: the acquisition of ceaseless and self-acting Jesus prayer, which … is not the final goal, but only one means of attaining that goal.”[6])
From: Alexei I. Osipov, The Search for Truth on the Path of Reason (Sretensky Monastery, Pokrov Press, 2009) 238-240.
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