The Philokalia, that wonderful collection of writings by the fathers on prayer of the heart, has as its full title, The Philokalia of the Neptic Saints gathered from our Holy Theophoric Fathers, through which, by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect. Little wonder it is known popularly as the Philokalia. That word, Philokalia, means “the love of beautiful things.” It is not a reference to expensive, decorative items, but to the things which are made beautiful by their union with God. All things are beautiful inasmuch as they are united to God, Who is Beauty itself.
Another important word in the title is the adjective, “Neptic” (νηπτικός). It has a variety of translations: sober, watchful, vigilant. It refers to those who, having their earthly senses purified, have become truly aware of God and dwell in Him. This title is especially used to describe the fathers of the Hesychast tradition in Orthodoxy, the tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness associated with the monastic life.
To describe these fathers as “sober,” is very insightful. For our experience with the passions, the disordered desires of our body and soul, is often an experience of drunkenness.
For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thess. 5:7-10).
The man who is drunk is famously unaware of his surroundings. He stumbles physically, mentally and spiritually, barely aware of his own imbalance. The passions have the same ability to blind us. In anger we are aware primarily of our own anger. What we see, we see through the haze of the energy that pulses through our mind and body.
All of the passions have this property. They consume us and become the primary lens through which we see the world and with which we react. Thus we are described as in “delusion.” Those who see the world through their passions do not see the truth of things. They see their own passions.
There is a social aspect to the passions – they are not restricted to an individual’s experience. Whole societies, or significant segments within it, can be drunk with the same passions. Thus a whole society can be drunk with the passion of racism (a mixture of ignorance, superstition, fear, anger, etc.). Such a passion is reinforced by being repeatedly affirmed by those around us. Many aspects of culture are simply a communion of the passions.
We live in an age where the passions are carefully studied and used as the objects of marketing. Those things that are sold to us (even those that supposedly appeal to our intellect) are marketed to our passions. Apple computer famously researches the “feel” of its packaging, presenting a sensual experience that is associated with quality, precision and value. It is a successful strategy across the whole of our culture.
However, those who are “drunk” with the passions also yield themselves as victims to their intoxication. Political parties pour massive amounts of money into their campaigns simply to create and nurture the passions by which people vote. We are not governed by reason or informed decisions. Most of what you or I think about political subjects is a description of the passions to which we are enslaved. The political cynicism of many is, to a degree, a recognition of our disgust with the politics of passion.
By the same token, most of the opinions we nurture are equally the product of our passions. We think, we believe, we decide, we act largely in accord with the passions to which we are enthralled. Theological debates are generally arguments between one person’s passions and another’s. It is a conversation between drunks.
And so the Church values the holy, sober fathers. These are the men and women who have walked the narrow way of salvation, “putting to death the deeds of the body.” Inner stillness is the state of freedom from disordered passions. The neptic fathers do not cease to desire (they are not Buddhists). But their desires have been purified and healed – restored to proper order. Sobriety means desiring the right thing in the right way at the right time. Traditionally, this purification and healing come as a result of a life of repentance, fasting and prayer. It slays demons and heals the wounds of the soul. All things are brought into obedience to Christ.
It is the life that Scripture enjoins:
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he my devour. Rsist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world (1 Peter 5:8-9).
There is a story in the desert fathers that illustrates such vigilance. A community of monks once heard a rumor that one of their number was harboring a woman in his cell. They went to the elder and complained. While they became yet more agitated, the elder slipped away to the cell of the erring monk. Finding the woman there, he hid her in a large earthen vessel. He placed the lid on the vessel and sat on it. Soon the angry monks arrived at the cell and began to search for the woman. Out of respect for the elder they overlooked the vessel on which he was sitting. Finding nothing, they apologized to the erring monk and left. The elder, rose from his seat and said to the monk, “Pay attention to yourself.”
It is a call to sobriety. The angry monks were drunk with their own self-righteousness. Their sin was at least as great as the erring monk. The elder alone was sober. His sobriety hid the sin of a man from those who would have harmed him, and revealed the sin to the one who needed to be healed. The word of healing was kind and without judgment. “Pay attention to yourself.” It is the simple word of St. Peter, “Be sober.”
For all of us, in every moment of the day with regard to all things and all people, it is good to pay proper attention to ourselves.
This prayer of St. Isaac of Syria, great among the neptic fathers, is one of my favorites:
I knock at the door of Thy compassion, Lord: send aid to my scattered impulses which are drunk with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness.
Thou canst see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition – though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them.
Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance, and may I find relief from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Thy gift, for without the power of Thy grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them, be able to be still from great distraction.
Thank you Father. I am a recovering addict. (of various kinds) I found the elders words to the monk caught in sin especially powerful. “Pay attention to yourself.” When I cease to pay attention to myself, I start to drift into a fog where I am unaware of my own thoughts and feelings. In this state the thorns of the cares of the world can grow up very quickly. Turning to the passions to kill the pain or anxiety is then much easier. I also loved St. Isaac’s words, “Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance” Lord have Mercy!
Thank you Father. I do believe that we, as a culture, are sinking deeper into passionate thinking. Even the media reports are focused on stirring up emotions. I find myself sensing stress when I overhear the evening news. Even weather reporting has become that way. As the last hurricane worked its way towards us it sounded as if the end of the world was upon us. Fortunately, here it was “much ado about nothing.” We had a bit of wind, some good rain that we needed and no tornadoes.
Father, would you say that forgiveness is an essential part of watchfulness?
I would think so. Harboring unforgiveness will darken the heart.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for sharing the prayer by St. Isaac of Syria. Very timely for me!
St Irenaeus of Lyons said:
“One should not seek among others the truth that can be easily gotten from the church. For in her, as in a rich treasury, the apostles have placed all that pertains to truth, so that anyone can drink this beverage of life. She is the door of life.”
is that prayer from the Ascetical Homilies, or elsewhere?
Father, from your recent columns I have gathered that if I do not judge others, I cannot harbor a grudge against them! Fascinating and life changing.
Isaac of Syria also says in the Ascetical Homilies (I think Homily 2) that ‘the world’ is the collective term for the passions.
Dear Father Stephen,
Thank you for this wonderful post.
The photo you chose to go along with it (and the discussion on sobriety) reminded me of something I heard in a sermon of an Irish preacher (his audience, according to him, was most affected by the problem of excessive alcohol consumption). He said the one can tell what “spirit” the man is “filled with” by considering the way “that man walks, talks AND smells”…. I cannot remember what he said about the smell of a person filled with the Holy Spirit, but for me it tied so nicely with the story Dino shared on another thread, about the relics of St. Mary of Egypt… Whether the relics truly belonged to her or not, the fragrance of the Holy Spirit remained with that Saint even until today, when we can be blessed by smelling it….
But isn’t it true that we also need to be prepared to encounter a blessing such as smelling the relics of a Saint? Would a septic and non-believer notice the fragrance, even if he/she entered the same space?
I had a great blessing to venerate the relic of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai a few years ago. Only after the pilgrimage I read that her relic (her skull is what we kissed!) is fragrant…. I am sorry and sad to say that I don’t remember the fragrance…. But not surprised, considering my spiritual poverty…. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me. And upon your whole world…
I don’t recall.
This a wonderful article, Fr. Stephen. Thank you so much.
I am learning (slowly) that being sober and watchful is a constant process and does not get easier as I go – if anything it may get more difficult!
If I discover how the enemy is tripping me up and, by the grace of God, learn to avoid that trap, it only seems that he comes up with new and more subtle deceits to try to ensnare me again.
It is humbling (which is good) to learn that I cannot possible do this alone. There is no sensible alternative than to completely surrender myself to God. (But, of course, I need God’s help even to do that…) Please pray for me.
Yes Fr Stephen, I see myself as passionately drunk. So often we (I) look and point to someone else, or to a group of people with whom I might not agree and think ‘they are the problem’. How can I say this if I am the ‘chief among all sinners’? We think in our self righteousness that someone (or thing) is making our life difficult. Someone else is the faulty “goat” and “I am the sheep”. Really?? May I say “yes” to my ‘goatness’, paying attention to my own sins and not to judge my brother. May God help me to put my personal goat on the cross, (or on the tree as you showed us how in a previous picture). With God’s grace may I attend to my own heart stirrings and with grace say yes and come to the cross, the tree of life.
It seems to me that prayer (stillness), almsgiving (material poverty), and repentance (spiritual poverty) is somehow both the means and the ends of salvation.
Can you explain the role of grace (God’s willingness and active presence), and our own role (our own willingness and active presence) in effecting these means and ends?
I assume we are not actually drawing God to us through these acts, but that we are being drawn by God to willfully cooperate in participation of these acts. So, if we are drawn to empty ourselves a little it will leads us toward emptying ourselves a little more, and so on, until gradually we are persuaded by God’s presence that lives within these acts to become utterly empty, like Christ Himself in perfect humility and sacrificial love.
But this little by little graduation is realized differently in each person. Some make there way quickly down the road, as if in one bound, while others trudge a long at slower than snails pace. And moreover, even others turn back, though they were on there way, and do not continue down the pathway anylonger.
So it must be that we have a role in this walk. God’s grace comes to us, and we have to cooperate. But I thought even this role of ours -this cooperation-was even an aspect of the salvation itself. In other words, cooperation is grace-filled, and little by little we more fully cooperate, until experiencing the fullness of cooperation in complete Christ-likeness.
So where does this power to turn away come from God come from? It’s not powered by God, so the power lies solely in me. Then it seems like whether or not I experience Christ’s fullness partly depends on this power of mine. I don’t understand it.
Timely. Many thanks for this writing, Father.
Does not the power to turn away from God come from our God-given freedom? – that ‘daunting’ freedom which God bestowed and eternally respects, a freedom which means we can both “invent hell”, by turning away from God in our self-preoccupation, as well as “discover Heaven”, by freely turning towards Him. You cannot have the second without having the first though…! And our struggle to re-orientate our self-obsessed being, which is filled with futility and shackled to it, is a work of the will as well as of Grace with infinite variety in it’s manifestations.
‘Self-emptying’ is for that reason key, especially since our self-absorption can be just as evident in our ‘virtue’ as it is in our sin. (For instance, we often see that the sticking point for our love of another, even when we are approaching ‘sacrificial love’, is our difficulty to maintain complete respect for another’s freedom of self-determination.)
Concerning my previous comment, it seems like we have only a few choices (but I could be, and probable am wrong).
Seems like our choices are either; semi-pelagianism, because this power to reject God depends solely on our own abilities, sans-God, and is determinant of our salvation; universalism, because our cooperation is indeed a gift of grace that gradually persuades us to further cooperate, and our sole power to reject God is not a determinant of our salvation; or, lastly, limited atonement, because our salvation and “cooperation” is willed by God’s grace by fiat, and those who reject God by their own power were passed over.
How is does that not lead to semi-pelagianism if our salvation is in part determined by an aspect of our being sans-God?
In fact, I see semi-pelagianism all throughout the scripture (but I’m not the best interpreter), and I personally don’t have a problem with that, except that it was condemned by the Church in one of the Councils, wasn’t it?
Outright Pelagianism was condemned, but “semi-pelagianism” (if we were to call it that) is not the same thing… We tread a fine line between two opposites here.
“Semi-pelagianism” was a tag thrown at the East (particularly St. John Cassian) by those in the West who had adopted a very strong Augustinian take against pure Pelagianism. They fear, it sometimes seemed, even the hint of the will’s power.
I’m am sometimes of a strange mind in the matter, just to confess my own thoughts (not dogma). I have written many times of the relatively low opinion that I have of the will. It comes from many years as priest and confessor (as well as my own self-observation). I think the will is, properly, incredibly powerful, but is always hindered by the mode in which we experience it (St. Maximus’ “gnomic will”). In that guise, it is flimsy, often confused and as much in need of healing as any aspect of the soul. The sovereign will that has such eternal consequence in its every deliberation, described in abstract so often, is something that I’ve almost never seen. Even the most stubborn and perverted will seems more like the tantrums of a child than the cool Promethean decisions of Milton’s Lucifer.
So, though I would agree with Dino on the will’s necessary role, I treat it more like the role of feet in the art of walking. You can’t walk without them, but just having feet won’t make you walk. The will is essential to what it means to be fully human, but it clearly doesn’t work very well for most people – not in terms of salvation.
Human salvation is a very large project, not able to be narrowed down to God’s work and our cooperation. I am not able to limit that whole project to this life-time alone for a variety of reasons, among which are simple justice. I do not espouse universalism, inasmuch as the Church has not formally taught it. But I know that if God doesn’t somehow save me, I will never even want it for myself. There is, instead, no single, simple moment, but a constant movement between myself and God, a movement that is hopefully headed towards salvation. If I am not saved in the end, it will have been my own will that prevents it. If I am saved in the end, my own will will have cooperated in some manner. The manner of all of that, however, is far more mysterious and complex, particularly in an individual life, than admits of description.
St. Augustine’s genius, if you will, lies in how closely he observed himself. It was more that observation, I think, than any philosophical commitment, that led him to resist Pelagius as strongly as he did. It is hard, I think, to argue with his experience. Mine feels so similar (particular as I grow older).
I thought your thorough comment above is pure gold, it manages to explain the unexplainable (perhaps the Achillean heel in many Christian, philosophical discussions) in simple and effective language.
Thank you Father, Dino and Michelle for this wonderful discussion on the will. I love the feet analogy Father…
Long time ago (in as source the I am a bit embarrassed to reveal, one of those “new agey” old writings, although full of very Orthodox ideas, it seemed to me), I saw this description of the will that I found was very useful:
“When you know what to think and do, then you must use your will to compel *yourself* to think and to do the right things. That is the legitimate use of the will (…) – to use it in holding yourself to the right course. Use your will to keep *yourself* thinking and acting the right way. (…) Keep your mind at home; it can accomplish more there than elsewhere.”
Isn’t this another way to describe “watchfulness”, that major component of our repentance? And the part of “when you know what to think and do” – that to me is “when you have the orthodox theology and direction for your life”… Pray at home in your room, your “hesychasm” will accomplish more than your “activism”…
Father, I very much appreciate the above explanation. So our culture says “just go wherever your feet want to go.” Mostly that translates to going nowhere, trying to go every direction at once, or walking into a swamp.
Thank you, Father and Dino. Now I no longer have to be a closer semi pelagian, lol.
Protestants make such a big deal out of our will and it’s abilities, with dogmatic proclamations left and right. I get the impression they think they have it all figured out. Its actually refreshing to hear a figurehead such as a priest come right out and say that its not.
That should say *closet semi pelagian
Perhaps it is of interest that in Greek we tend to use the word “πρόθεση”, which is actually closer to one’s “intention” or inclination, quite a bit more than we use the word ‘will’, regarding human cooperation with God’s will.
Father this conversation seems, among other things, a good caution against proclaiming anyone else a heretic.
Especially without examining one’s own heart deeply with one’s confessor. Even then.
I would also think that speaking about a particular belief as a heresy versus speaking of a person as a heretic would be preferable. Ad Hominum is the mode of discussion today and it always degenerates to shouting and hurting. It is never productive. I have many dear friends in the Pro Life movement who hold Heterodox beliefs. I can doubt the beliefs they hold but I can never doubt their commitment to the Lord.
One of the elements of Protestant emphasis on the will, I have come to believe, is its utter captivity to the modernist myths of consumerist capitalism. It’s a sort of “by your own boot-straps” kind of salvation. Which is all the more peculiar given their doctrinal notions of salvation by faith alone. But they have turned “faith alone” into a consumerist decision, and have themselves becomes Pelagians. It justifies the success of the wealthy (“we chose well, we worked hard”) and the failure of others – bad choices, lazy people. It’s Germans versus Greeks, etc. Of course, it’s deeply delusional and self-justifying.
Recent attacks on Mother Teresa by Orthodox friends almost drove me to despair. I fear that some, in pursuit of some kind of hyper-anti-ecumenism are dangerously close to calling black white and vice versa. The passions easily disguise themselves as faithfulness.
So I saw. Mother Teresa is a perfect example of what I was saying. I am sure that we would not agree in theology between her and I, but I cannot doubt her servant’s heart or her love for the Lord. The last time I checked, we don’t sit for a theology exam in order to matriculate to heaven, I think we are asked two questions: One, how did I show that I loved the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul and all my might and the second question is like unto the first. Our answers are not what we think up at the moment but the essay we write with our lives. I rather think that Mother Teresa had very good answers.
Nicholas Stephen, you are right. We can rarely know if someone is so intransigent as to actually be a heretic. We are all influenced by heretical ideas however and it is vital that we guard our hearts against active ones.
Certainly nominalism and many other beliefs that Father Stephen is teaching about can lead to heretical beliefs.
Unfortunately, such beliefs can act like spiritual carbon monoxide. Making it much more difficult to know and accept the truth.
The question then becomes “To which Lord am I dedicated?”
Fortunately, He is actively and persistently merciful.
You speak truth when you liken heretical beliefs to carbon monoxide, or we could say a cancer of the spirit. Heresy does eat at one’s being and it blocks their ears in many ways. It does prevent one from hearing and understanding the truth.
However, I try to steer away from using a construction in a sentence when referring to a person of “he is” or “you are.” The construction, for example, of a sentence saying “John stole some money is far different from saying “John is a thief.” The first focuses on his behavior, the second is one that condemns his person. I have noticed that the Lord focused on behavior when e spoke to people and only rarely used the to be verb. He condemned Satan as a murderer and when condemning the Pharisees.
Using the to be verb implies judgement on our part of a person and viewing them ontologically as nothing, in the case of John, as a thief.
As you correctly point out, it is very difficult for people who have heretical beliefs to hear truth, it certainly shuts their ears to condemn them as heretics. Their beliefs I can criticize but I will leave their condemnation as heretics to the work of councils.
indeed, even in holiness, not just in sinfulness, no person can be securely and permanently characterised by their actions until they have passed on. As the ancient Solon said, “Count no man happy until he be dead.” Even our good (or not so good) inclination (Romans 7:22) is only really sealed and cemented on “the other side”, once this heart has ceased from beating according to our Tradition. It is why ‘human holiness’ is mainly found in the area of struggle and not in perfection.
“Recent attacks on Mother Teresa by Orthodox friends almost drove me to despair. …”
I think this is appropriate time for me to say THANK YOU! for not only calling this out but everything you’ve written on the topic of hyper-anti-ecumenism, especially one comment you made about not knowing what people mean when they say “There is no salvation outside the Church”. Seeing that hyper-correctness on various Orthodox Facebook groups has sent me into despair a few times over the past two and a half years, if only temporarily.
(That said, some of the ways in which her life rhymed with that of Christ – especially when it came to the criticisms – came as close as anything to tempting me to switch to the RCC! 🙂 )