[Abba Isaac said:] There is a good comparison between the soul and a delicate little feather. If a feather has not been touched by [moisture], it is so light that the slightest breath of wind can puff it high into the air. But if even a little [moisture] has weighed it down, it cannot float, and falls straight to the ground. In the same way the mind, if not burdened by sin and the cares of daily life and evil passion, has a natural purity which lifts it from earth to heaven at the least breath of a meditation upon the invisible things of the spirit. The Lord’s command is sufficient warning—“Take heed that your hearts be not weighed down by drunkenness and the cares of this world” [Luke 21:34]. So if we want our prayers to reach the sky and beyond the sky, we must make sure that the mind is so unburdened by the weights of sin and passion as to be restored to its natural buoyancy. Then the prayer will rise to God.
~ Conferences of Cassian 9.4
This beautiful image from Abba Isaac is perhaps even more fitting when one remembers that ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin all used the same word for breath, wind, and spirit (within each language, not between them). An example can be seen in the words of Christ himself (originally recorded in Greek): “The wind [pneuma] blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit [pneuma]” (John 3:8). In this context, Christ is talking about being born again (or “from above”) by water and the Spirit, i.e. through baptism. Nevertheless, his insight in this verse relates to anyone who truly prays in purity of heart. As Abba Isaac says, “[I]f not burdened by sin and the cares of daily life and evil passion, [the mind] has a natural purity which lifts it from earth to heaven at the least breath of a meditation upon the invisible things of the spirit.”
So what does it take for our souls like feathers to fly through the heavens? Abba Isaac gives the image of moisture that weighs down a feather and says that in the same way “the weights of sin and passion” and drunkenness keep our souls from floating upon the spiritual wind.
Furthermore, while acknowledging the danger of these things—drunkenness in particular—in the literal sense, Abba Isaac offers a spiritual interpretation:
[T]here is another kind of overeating and drinking and anxiety about the world, a spiritual kind which is just as dangerous, is harder to avoid, and which frequently traps us. The heart soiled with sin and passion will be a heart weighted by this drunkenness of the spirit. And anxieties can still afflict us, even though we are not engaged in worldly business. (9.5)
When we hold in sins unconfessed and when we allow ourselves to be pushed around by passions—those bad emotional habits, like anxiety, that we so often let ourselves fall into—we are spiritually like people who have had too much to drink. In other words, bad habits, actions, thoughts, and words put us in a detrimentally altered state of being.
What is helpful about this “good comparison” is that it offers some good, preliminary questions to ask if one feels spiritually dull and weighted. Have I sinned in any way that I need to confess to God, myself, my neighbor, or my spiritual director? What passions have I allowed to shape my thoughts and actions? Removing this spiritual moisture from our souls requires confession, repentance, and discipline, which help us grow in true community with one another and become more detached from the material world and more spiritually minded.
Our souls like damp feathers cling to the earth when impassioned and resist the currents of the Spiritual Wind. But like dry feathers, when our passions dissipate our souls take flight in prayer, borne upon the Breath of Heaven.