An old man said: “Satan has three powers, which lead to all the sins. The first is forgetfulness, the second negligence, and the third concupiscence. If forgetfulness comes, it begets negligence: negligence is the mother of concupiscence: and by concupiscence a man falls. If the mind is serious, it repels forgetfulness, negligence does not come, concupiscence finds no entry— and so with help from Christ’s grace, he shall never fall.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 11.46

There are many sayings like these in the ascetic writings of the Church. One could list basic causes of all sin ad infinitum. The important thing to remember is that these sayings arise not (merely, I should say) from abstract theorizing but from practical experience. Thus, this is what this old man has found. As the matter at hand is a practical one, arguments are not necessary, only self-examination. Is his experience, your experience? If so, then his solution might be your solution as well.

I can say, at least, that this saying resonates with me. Forgetfulness leads to negligence, and negligence to desiring what is not truly good (concupiscence).

The Greek term for this last element is epithemia, and it was one of four basic passions to ancient Stoics, some Jews, and most—if not all—early Christians. As a passion, it was understood to be the result of a process. First one has an impression. This comes with a prejudgment of the object in question (e.g. “this thing would be good to have”). Christians even add that in addition to this thought (logismos) an image would, then, accompany it in one’s imagination. Lastly, if one assents to the prejudged impression and image, only then has one submitted to a passion.

Thus, it is safe to say that when the old man speaks of concupiscence, he is not simply talking about an involuntary, noncognitive feeling. Rather, he has in mind a cognition entertained by one’s imagination and assented to with one’s will.

So, how does he think we get there?

This, too, is the result of at process: first, we forget. Forget what? He doesn’t say. The answer could be as narrow as forgetting our moral duties, but I would argue that it is likely far broader. Given that he commends seriousness to combat forgetfulness, it is reasonable to assume that what we forget is the seriousness of our lives. This happens all the time. We forget that we are mortal, and that all things in this life are subject to corruption, change, and decay. We forget that we need to work constantly to be righteous, and, moreover, that we need grace for our work to be effective.

So we begin by forgetting how serious our lives are. This leads to negligence in our practice. And it does not take long to discover that when we let down our guard, the enemy soon finds a finds a foothold in our lives.

What we need is seriousness and grace. But how do we snap out of it once we have given in to forgetfulness? On the one hand, actions have natural consequences. Presuming it has not become a bad habit, shame, regret, and so on are sure to follow concupiscence. On the other hand, we can preemptively strike against forgetfulness if we incorporate both appeals for grace and reflections on the seriousness of life into our practice.

Naturally, I would recommend the Jesus prayer (which I have too often neglected as of late) for the former. For the latter, the first thing that comes to mind is to remember to regularly pray for the departed. I’ve been okay at this, but I think my neglect of the Jesus prayer has, at times, led to a disoriented seriousness, one without enough hope, one too focused on me.

And that is one of the best things about grace: it is a reminder that I do not, all on my own, need to be the solution. Focusing too much on me is half the problem in the first place. But the fact that I can count on help, from God, the saints, and others—well, now that is good news.

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