Lesson after the Presanctified Liturgy

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church

Grand Rapids, Michigan

March 30, 2022

Introduction

A story from the desert Fathers provides a fitting image for our topic tonight:

The monks praised a brother to Abba Antony. But Antony went to him and tested whether he could endure abuse. And when he perceived that he could not bear it, he said: “You are like a house with a highly decorated facade, where burglars have stolen all the furniture out of the back door.”

In chapters 14 through 18 of Way of the Ascetics, Tito Colliander focuses on the topics of humility, watchfulness, resolution, and prayer. Without humility, we cannot be watchful. Without watchfulness or “vigilance,” we cannot be resolute. Without resolution—“the will to resist” temptation—we cannot truly pray. Then, no matter how holy we may seem to our brothers and sisters, their praise only amounts to window dressing, while inside the houses of our hearts, nothing of value remains. We have allowed burglars—our temptations—to steal away our virtue while we weren’t looking, too self-absorbed to notice.

Colliander connects these four elements in the second paragraph of chapter 14:

Humility is a prerequisite, for the proud man is once and for all shut out. Vigilance is necessary in order immediately to recognize the enemies and to keep the heart free from vice. The will to resist must be established at the very instant the enemy is recognized. But since without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5), prayer is the basis on which the whole battle depends.

My intention in this talk tonight is to augment Colliander’s discussion of these four elements by fleshing out some of the Fathers’ teachings that he sometimes leaves implicit in these chapters. With greater nuance, then, I hope we’ll be able to have a deeper discussion of these essential spiritual tools as they relate to our own lives.

Humility

True to its character, humility seems to be one of the least discussed virtues. Classical Greece bequeathed to us the cardinal virtues of courage, temperance, prudence, and justice. St. Paul revealed to us the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. But despite its absence from traditional lists like these, humility may, in a very important sense, be the most essential of all. Aristotle taught that the cardinal virtues are the middle path between two vices. For example, bravery without caution is rashness. Caution without bravery is cowardice. Both impulses can lead us to vice just as well as virtue. What puts them in their place? Humility does. Humble bravery is cautious bravery, i.e., courage. So also, when our impulse to caution is chastened by humility, we will question it, asking ourselves whether we might be overcautious, whether our caution might stand in the way of doing the will of God. In this way, humble caution makes room for bravery—it, too, is courage.

Our Lord Jesus Christ put humility at the very beginning of his teaching: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). And St. Paul did not neglect humility when he taught of the grandeur of love, saying, “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). What is this but just another way of saying, “Love is humble”? Love may be the greatest and most divine of the virtues, but without humility, we cannot love, and then all other would-be spiritual accomplishments, St. Paul reminds us, amount to nothing. Rather, as Colliander puts it, “The less strength you credit yourself with, the more surely you stand.”

St. Benedict teased out the inner logic of humility in his monastic Rule: “brethren,” he says,

if we want to attain true humility, and come quickly to the top of that heavenly ascent to which we can only mount by lowliness in this present life, we must ascend by good works, and erect the mystical ladder of Jacob, where angels ascending and descending appeared to him. That ascent and descent means that we go downward when we exalt ourselves, and rise when we are humbled.

Such is the paradox of humility, and thus the paradox of our entire life in Christ: The way up, is down. Christ himself modelled this for us, as we commemorate every year during Holy Week, dwelling upon the icon of his “extreme humiliation,” which the Church in her wisdom, as if to teach us this paradox with a single image, also calls, “The King of Glory.” The way of humility captures the essence of Orthodox asceticism. As we, each day, deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, silence, solitude, watchfulness, hospitality, and all the other disciplines, we die with Christ through humility, and by the paradox of his grace, we rise up anew to a supernatural glory hidden deep within the houses of our hearts, the glory of his Great and Holy Pascha.

Watchfulness

With humility as our foundation, then, let us turn to those ascetic practices Colliander outlines in these chapters, beginning with watchfulness. Once again, in the Bridegroom matins of Holy Week, the Church also puts watchfulness front and center in the recurring hymn,

Behold the bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.

Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given over to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.

But rouse yourself, crying: “Holy! Holy! Holy! art Thou, O our God. Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!”

This hymn combines at least two images: The first is the parable of the Ten Virgins, in which the five wise virgins stored up enough oil to keep their lamps burning in order to watch until Christ, the Bridegroom, comes in the middle of the night, but the five foolish virgins, ill-prepared for his coming, find themselves shut out in the darkness.

The second image comes from Gethsemane. On the night he was betrayed, taking with him Sts. Peter, James, and John, Jesus “began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with me’” (Matthew 26:27-28). Our Lord leaves them to pray in his agony, but upon returning to them, he finds them sleeping and wakes Peter, saying to him, “What! Could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41). He went away and prayed again, and again found them sleeping, so he left them without waking them and prayed a third time.

We might think to ourselves, “How could they fall asleep?” But reading this story through the eyes of humility, ought we not, rather, to be grateful that the Lord gave us Peter, James, and John? If we see ourselves in them, rather than placing ourselves above them, we learn that resisting temptation is neither a matter of willpower nor mental stamina: “The spirit … is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Try not to be tempted sometime. Try to prevent yourself, through sheer force of will, from thinking and feeling vicious things, and you find yourself all the more consumed by them and powerless before them. Thinking and feeling, the Fathers teach us, are simply things the soul does. Trying to resist those natural operations with our own strength is like trying to use an umbrella to keep dry while standing under a waterfall. Instead, we need to come out from under their power in order to stand and face them. One way we do that is through watchfulness.

As Colliander notes, temptation and passions are the result of a psychological process of impulse, intercourse, consent, and then finally sin. The Fathers add to this that sinning once adds the memory of falling to temptation, strengthening the impulse to sin, weakening our resistance to entertaining that temptation, and pushing us more easily to willfully consent to sin. Thus, temptation functions as a sort of feedback loop—giving in once makes it more likely that we give in again. Then, as St. Paul put it, “the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:19-20). I have become passive to sin. This process often comes to pass unconsciously within us, so the first step out from under the waterfall is, by the grace of God, to become conscious of how this all works.

Accordingly, the Fathers built upon the ancient Stoics’ understanding of four fundamental passions. In the negative sense, a passion, to both, involves a mistaken judgment about what is good and evil. Only virtue is good. Only sin is evil. All else is indifferent, tending to one or the other depending on its use. Thus, they identified four basic passions: fear, grief, pleasure, and desire. These passions are a combination of 1) a mistaken judgment with 2) a timeframe, as illustrated on your handout [below after the break]. Fear is a mistaken judgment about a future evil, i.e., fear becomes a passion when we consent to fearing that which, in the light of Christ, we ought not to fear. The only thing we should fear is sin, for it alone can sever us from communion with God and our neighbors. If the judgment is correct, however, if the thing we fear is actually vicious or sinful, then our fear becomes a virtuous caution. In this sense what they mean by grief, similarly, is a mistaken judgment about a present evil. The only evil we should grieve is sin and its tragic effects on our world. When we grieve these things, we do well, expressing contrition for our sin and offering comfort to those who grieve the world’s heartbreak. But we must ask ourselves, when we grieve, whether what bothers us is really sin. Is it a sin when we don’t get our way? Of course not, but we grieve it all the time just the same, and that grief can lead us into temptation. On the other side of the coin, pleasure is when we mistake something indifferent—or worse, genuinely evil—for a present good. Desire is when we want something we don’t presently have, even though it isn’t truly virtuous. Yet we ought to hope for the good of virtue, using all the indifferent things of the world to obtain it, and then rejoicing in it when we find it.

In this way, through watchfulness the Fathers offer us a simple map to get the lay of the land of our hearts. Keeping these categories in mind helps us take a step back and simply observe our thoughts and feelings before allowing ourselves to becoming passive to them. But, once again, this is not a matter of mere willpower. In order to break the feedback loop of bad habits and sinful passions, we need a countervailing feedback loop of virtue and virtuous habits. That is the proper object of our resolve.

Resolution

Thus, instead of trying to resist temptation head on, we must, through humility, constantly acknowledge our powerlessness before God and resolve to take each day even just the next baby step along the narrow road that leads to life. Our Lord modelled this for us as well, praying to God the Father in Gethsemane, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). So also, he taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). And the most common prayer of the Church is simply, “Lord, have mercy.” It is the plea of one justly condemned. It is the cry of the heart for grace that cannot be earned by our own will and merits. It is complete surrender of our will to the will of God. If this were the only prayer we ever prayed, it would be sufficient. But there are depths to prayer that reach higher still and which merit our attention. Beginning with this prayer—or better, with the Jesus Prayer—we may rise on the wings of humility to more exalted heights of spiritual strength and wisdom, a more perfect imitation of Christ’s resurrection. Herein we find that virtuous feedback loop that we need. As Colliander puts it, “Enjoyment increases with proficiency.”

Prayer

In these chapters on prayer Colliander returns from some of his more austere recommendations to his earlier, more gracious tone, entreating us that “if your faith is very weak, you can profitably cry: Lord, give me faith! Such a prayer seldom goes unheard.” As for prayer, “Learn to pray,” he says, “and you vanquish all the evil powers that could imaginably assail you.” What evil powers? Well, we know something about them now. They are the passions and thoughts through which temptation enters into our souls. In our life in Christ, prayer is the proper vehicle of watchfulness. We ought not, like the pagan philosophers, simply try to overcome temptation through self-reflection. Christ did not just say to “watch,” but “watch and pray.” Self-reflection is needed, but shouldn’t we question any self-reflection that hasn’t, through humility, turned our resolve to prayer, acknowledging our dependence upon God? Thankfully, the Church has given us so many prayers to pray, many of which Colliander recommends, at once giving us words to pray and teaching us with every prayer how and why to pray in the first place. As Colliander puts it, “by praying one learns to pray.”

And what does prayer teach us? Well, we’ve already learned about humility, watchfulness, and resolve from some of the Church’s prayers. But how is prayer the proper form of our watchfulness? Colliander hints at this, citing St. Basil the Great: “Your prayer must have four constituent parts…: adoration, thanksgiving, confession of sin, and petition for salvation.” Adoration is our prayerful duty in response to the holy desire within us for communion with God. Thanksgiving is our prayerful duty in response to the joy of goodness and virtue. Confession of sin is the proper response to contrition over the guilt of our sin. And petition for salvation is the proper response to caution in the face of approaching temptation. What are these but the virtuous use of our thoughts and passions that we’ve already detailed, only transformed into prayer?

So, too, St. John Cassian records the teaching of one Abba Isaac in his Conferences, “The same person according to his diversity of affective states will use prayers of repentance or offering or intercession or thanksgiving.” Moreover, he sees a sort of sequence to these “four constituent parts” of our prayer:

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.

As the wheat of Christ’s field, living our lives among the thorns and thistles of the world—and the thorns and thistles of our own hearts—we ought not to become frustrated or despondent if we fail to achieve that rapturous “spark-like prayer” that transcends our understanding. Indeed, while St. Basil preached passionless as the goal for the monastic life, he recommended instead a more modest moderation of the passions for those of us who live in the world. Nevertheless, though we may not be monks, able to dedicate every moment of our lives to the art of prayer, perhaps, through humility, our weakness might be transfigured into strength through the Cross. If we are watchful, each time we fall short of the love we know we ought give to God and our neighbors is an opportunity to chastise our pride once again, resolve through repentance to take the first step back along the way of life, and pray to the Lord with King David, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation” (Psalm 50:12). When repentance brings us back to that joy, we need only offer the prayer of thanksgiving, “recollecting the generosity and mercy of the Lord,” for the spark of God’s grace within us to ignite our hearts, through prayer, into a burning conflagration of his love.


Ancient Christian Account of Our Basic Passions

(Modified from Ancient Stoicism):

Bad Passions (misjudging things as good or evil):

 GoodEvil/Harm
PresentPleasureGrief
FutureDesireFear

Good Passions (properly judging good and evil):

 GoodEvil/Harm
PresentJoyContrition/Comfort
FutureHopeCaution

Reflection Questions:

  1. What did you think of these chapters from Colliander’s book and Dylan’s presentation? Anything you would add? Anything you disagree with? Anything you’re curious to know more about?
  2. What do you want more than anything in the world? Should you want it? Why?
  3. What do you fear more than anything in the world? Should you fear it? Why?
  4. What bothers you most in life? Should it bother you? Why?
  5. What do you love more than anything in the world? Should you love it? Why?
  6. What is the next “baby step” you could take in your spiritual life? When do you have a free minute to pray “Lord, have mercy” one more time? How can you be more vigilant and watchful? How can you practice being more submissive to the will of God?
  7. When do you pray?
  8. What do you pray?
  9. What concrete practices—for example: a prayer, a recipe for fasting, taking an extra moment to be alone with the Lord—have you found particularly effective in your own life?
  10. What spiritual lessons have you learned from the prayers, icons, and hymns of the Church?