[Abba Isaac said:] Whether the prayer is expressing repentance, or is pledging the heart in the confident trust of a pure conscience, or is expressing the intercessions which spring from a charitable heart, or is rendering thanks in the sight of the great and loving gifts of God—we have known prayers dart up like sparks from a fire. It is therefore clear that all men need to use all four kinds. The same person according to his diversity of affective states will use prayers of repentance or offering or intercession or thanksgiving.
The first kind seems particularly suitable to beginners, who are still smarting under the recollection of their sins. The second kind seems particularly suitable to people who have already attained a certain progress towards goodness. Intercession seems particularly suitable to people who are fulfilling the pledges of self-offering which they made, see the frailty of others, and are moved by charity to intercede for them. Thanksgiving seems particularly suitable for those who have torn out of their hearts the sins which pricked their conscience and are at last free from fear of falling again: and then, recollecting the generosity and the mercy of the Lord, past or present or future, are rapt away into that spark-like prayer which no mortal can understand or describe.
~ Conferences of Cassian, 9.15
I have written in the past about the destructive cycle of passions that so often leads to tragedy in our lives here. And I have reflected on this particular passage with regards to thanksgiving here. However, I would like to focus a little more closely on this passage and see the connection that Abba Isaac draws between different forms of prayer and virtuous passions that typically follow a particular order—how the way out of the vicious cycle of death is a virtuous progression of life.
For a basic summary of the passions in question, I will begin with a later writer, St. Maximus the Confessor, who is asked by his friend Thalassius:
Are the passions evil in themselves or do they become so when used in an evil way? I am speaking of pleasure, grief, desire, fear, and the rest. (Ad Thalassium 1)
The four passions listed here correspond to the four most basic passions in Stoic ethics. To the Stoics (and ancient Christians, on the whole, agreed), the goal of ethics was to achieve dispassion (apatheia). It is important to note, however, that they distinguished between passions (pathoi), which are bad, and good passions (eupatheia). Thus, to be passionless did not mean to be emotionless, but rather to be free of all harmful emotional states.
They categorized passions this way: all emotional states are the result of judgments. In the case of bad passions, they are improper judgments about what is good or evil, the correct judgment being that only virtue is truly good and only vice is truly evil.
An improper judgment regarding a present evil was called grief. The same regarding a future evil was called fear. A future good: desire. A present good: pleasure.
On the other hand, a proper judgement regarding a future evil was caution; a future good, wishing; a present good, joy. To the Stoics, there was no such thing as a good form of grief that would be a proper judgment toward a present evil, since the presence of vice ought not to be considered good.
On this latter point, the Judeo-Christian tradition made advances on the Stoics in acknowledging the goodness of contrition, the proper emotional state when one becomes aware of a vice present in one’s soul.
Indeed, St. Maximus’s response demonstrates this:
The passions … become good in those who are spiritually earnest once they have wisely separated them from corporeal objects and used them to gain possession of heavenly things. For instance, they can turn desire ([epithemia]) into the appetitive movement of the mind’s longing for divine things, or pleasure ([hedone]) into the unadulterated joy of the mind when enticed toward divine gifts, or fear ([phobos]) into cautious concern for immanent punishment of sins committed, or grief ([lype]) into corrective repentance of a present evil.
He goes on to say that just as physicians can remove an infection of the body with the poison of a viper, so also we can use the good passions of our souls “to embrace and hold to virtue and [spiritual] knowledge.”
What is interesting about the teaching of Abba Isaac in this context, is that he sees these four forms of prayer, which he derives from Scripture (see 1 Timothy 2:1-2), as corresponding to the “diversity of affective states” that a person may experience. In particular, he believes that we are best off if we begin with the good passion of contrition and its counterpart form of prayer, supplication, which I intend to explore in my next post.