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A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XLVII

March 21, 2012

Introduction and Part II

“Desire that has its origin in the mind is the source of dark passions. And when the soul is engrossed in such desires, she forgets her own nature, that she is a breath of God; and so she is carried away into sin, in her folly not considering the evils that she will suffer after death.”[1]

“Godlessness and love of praise are the worst and most incurable diseases of the soul and lead to her destruction.”[2]  To wish for some evil suggests a lack in the soul, where some good needed for the soul is not to be found.[3] To possess what is good, we must wholeheartedly place ourselves under the direction of God and to do whatever he shall please him.[4]

 

When we turn inward, not to root out sin, but to reinforce the ego, to reinforce the self (or rather, a false self), we create spiritual barriers which keep us away from God. The greater the pride, the more praise we seek, the more we rise up and try to become like a god unto the world. We turn our backs upon God and become Godless, for we have closed off the grace of God in our lives. By trying to lift ourselves up, we destroy ourselves, closing us off from the grace which alone is capable of making us great. Instead, we need to cleanse ourselves, to let the Spirit into our lives, to find ourselves where instead of being Godless we become Godfull.  Through our very breathe, we are to open ourselves to the Spirit of God, to be a Spirit bearer to the world. In this way, we realize ourselves only in our union with God, where we become like the breathe of God into the world, able to transform it insofar as we have been transfigured by grace.

 

“If you want to be wise, God within comprehend
“You must first burn away your own concupiscence.”[5]

 

We must turn to God, and away from the guile of the mind and all the distractions it produces in our spiritual life. We must learn to silence the mind, to silence it so as to be open to the direction of God. As long as the mind wanders around with its own thoughts, its own inclinations, incapable of seeing and experiencing God, the mind will distract us, lead us astray, and encourage us to follow the path of the ego with the mind becoming the throne of the ego.  “For the intellect is uncontrollable, not because it is by nature ever-active, but because through our continual remissness it has been given over to distraction and has become used to that.”[6] The impure mind, the mind not having been properly disciplined, can produce thoughts which will suggest all kinds of activity that might please us for a time, but the desire it produces must not be heeded; they must be overcome if we want to set ourselves right: we must make sure our mind is no longer stuck with the habits formed from concupiscence. The mind constantly recollects the past, brings up all kinds of thoughts which can easily distract us and confuse us, indeed, thoughts and ideas which prevent us from seeing the world as it is, and especially, from experiencing the fullness of the grace of God revealed in the uncreated energies of God.

There are many ways one can go about silencing thoughts, but, as St. Gregory Palamas tells us, there is a technique which has been developed that helps bring the mind under control: breathing exercises where we focus on our breath and so close out the thoughts of this mind. This method is one which has had universal appeal and recognition from ascetics around the world:

This is why certain masters recommend them to control the movement inwards and outwards of breath, and to hold it back a little; in this way, they will also be able to control the mind together with the breath – this at any rate, until such time as they have made progress, with the aid of God, have restrained the intellect from becoming distracted by what surrounds it, have purified it and truly become capable of leading to a ‘unified recollection.’ One can state that this recollection is a spontaneous effect of the attention of the mind, for the to-and-fro movement of the breath becomes quietened during intensive reflection, especially with those who maintain inner quiet in body and soul.[7]

Once the mind is quieted, we can say “Speak Lord, I am listening.” We can be open for the direction of God, which is so often recognized in a still, small voice, a voice which we will not hear when our mind shouts over it. And even if we do not hear, in the silence, that voice speaking, we are emptying ourselves of all that would lead us astray, so that we will still be able to be full of God, full of the grace needed to energize our activity and to make sure we live a life pleasing to God. We turn against ourselves, die to the self, and await the resurrection from the dead from the life-giving Spirit of God. Evil exists in the heart in those places where we have closed in on ourselves, where we have prevented the Spirit of God from dwelling. We need to be entirely penetrated by grace, to be entirely united with God; where the egotistical self remains, so grace is not and evil remains. And it is there that the passions remain and where we can be led astray, away from God, through the semblance of something desirable:

So the devil, evil as he is, when he sees that the soul is blinded by sensual selfish love, proposes all sorts of sins to her. But they are all disguised as something profitable or good. And he makes different propositions to people according to their situations and the vices he sees them most open to.[8]

For where the soul is blinded by self-love, by selfishness rooted in the false self, that false self strives for life, to continue, to exist in the joys it believes is most pleasurable; but those joys are fleeting and the self must thrust forward more and more to achieve such pleasure, growing in stature, dislocating the presence of God within. Temptation directs us to follow such fleeting, inordinate pleasures; again, the only solution is to flee through the quieting of the mind, resting on the grace of God. As soon as we see ourselves reinforcing the false self, we are given the opportunity to fight it, to enter the spiritual combat, to bring, so to speak, the walls of Jericho down, the walls set up by the self to hold itself independent from all things, including God.  Where the walls come down, God comes in, directing us to a life that is pleasing, not just to him, but to ourselves as well:

For peace is returned to the soul of its own enemies – sins and vices – are expelled from it. And therefore, according to the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we indeed read these things, we also equip ourselves and are roused for battle, but against those enemies that ‘proceed from our heart’: obviously, ‘evil thought, thefts, false testimony, slanders,’ and other similar adversaries of our soul.[9]

The mind put under control is good; we must not understand it as an evil thing, but rather, fallen in its modality. When it has been put under control, when it has been disciplined, it is also capable of being a tool of the Spirit of God:

And if the mind conquers in this contest, then it prays in the Spirit, and begins to expel from the body the passions of the soul which come to it from its own will. Then the Spirit has a loving partnership with the mind, because the mind keeps the commandments which the Spirit has delivered to it.[10]

We focus on the mind, not because it is the only place in which the passions lie, but rather, because its place in the holistic unity of the person; it is misguided by the passions of the body and allows the passions to direct its thoughts, instead of directing the body. When the imbalance is overturned, then the body itself will be able to be used properly, for the good it was intended. This is not to say the passions or desires of the body are, in themselves, evil, but rather, disordered when not properly directed by the mind: we must eat food, but the one who lets the body control, will make us live to eat instead of live to eat. So the mind, given in to the body, will think thoughts of food when it is not necessary and lead us to gluttony, though when the mind is disciplined and brought under control, then it can direct the body and make sure we live in it in the proper goodness God intended for us.

 

 

The general sentiment of these passages remain the kind of ascetic advice found in the writings surrounding St. Anthony: we must keep God before us, we must reflect upon death and use that to guide our actions in life. Vanity is a special temptation of those seeking holiness, and is indeed, something which we know Anthony denounces. But, when talking about the nature of the soul as being the “breath of God,” we find an analogy, which can be used in an orthodox sense, is nonetheless different from the normative way we see Anthony’s anthropology: the Spirit, the breath of God, is a gift of God to man, not a part of the soul. [11] This, of course, should give us pause and gives us another reason to doubt the relationship of this text with Anthony.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 353 (#157).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 353 (#158).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 353 (#158).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 353 (#158.

[5] Angelus Silesius, The Cherubinic Wanderer, 136.

[6] St. Gregory of Sinai, “On Prayer,” The Philokalia: the Complete Text. Volume IV. Trans. and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 276.

[7] St. Gregory Palamas, Triads, 46.

[8] St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue. Trans. Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 89-90.

[9] Origen, Homilies on Joshua. Trans. Barbara J. Bruce (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2002), 130.

[10] Chitty, The Letters of St. Antony, 3 [Letter I].

[11] See Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, 68-9.

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2 Comments
  1. March 21, 2012 5:18 pm

    This is great Henry – there is so much here to both challenge and edify me.

    There are many ways one can go about silencing thoughts, but, as St. Gregory Palamas tells us, there is a technique which has been developed that helps bring the mind under control: breathing exercises where we focus on our breath and so close out the thoughts of this mind.

    This especially is something I need to practice – whenever I have a chance to meditate (both during Mass and elsewhere), I am struck by what a noisy place my brain is, and what a struggle it is to come to quiet.

    • March 21, 2012 5:50 pm

      It really can be quite difficult, but one thing many point out is, when one begins to note the distractions while trying to silence the mind, don’t get frustrated — but note them (not doing it makes one focus on them more), and then try to get back to the meditation/prayer.

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