When many of the Fathers of the Church warn us to keep active and aware, they are not speaking of physical actions and good works—although good works are always good to do. By staying active, they are referring to the action of the nous or of the mind/heart: active in the inner man. We stay active in our nous through constant prayer, often by learning to constantly recite a short prayer, most commonly, the Jesus Prayer.
When the Fathers talk about being lazy, again, they are generally not talking about lounging about not doing physical work—although such lounging about is often rebuked with the word, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” The laziness the Fathers are speaking of is the tendency to let go of active prayer and to let our minds wander, to daydream, to entertain whatever thoughts just happen to occur to me at a given moment. These thoughts, sometimes from the evil one, sometimes from my own memory or generated by my ego, are often referred to as logismoi, or ‘words.’
Whether these logismoi are originally generated out of my own mind or come from the evil one, almost always, they draw my nous away from prayer and soon begin to generate passion. The ‘words’ (or thoughts) lead quickly to a feeling, which confirms to me the thoughts, which in turn strengthens the feeling, which in turn, often, produces a physical response in my body: my blood pressure rises, adrenaline begins flowing in my blood, my stomach growls, I begin to be aroused, my heart rate increases. Sometimes there are even visions and dreams or serendipitous external confirmations. All of these confirm the logismoi/thoughts and draw me into excitement of some sort and away from prayer and rest in the Holy Spirit.
There are holy men and women who are able to dismiss the logismoi before they produce passion. I have read of such holy people. However, I very, very seldom even notice stray thoughts until after they have produced strong feelings within me. For me the trick is catching the ‘feeling-thought’ early, before I am too caught up in it. If I catch it soon enough, the Jesus Prayer functions as a kind of spiritual triage for me: I apply The Prayer as a bandage to staunch the bleeding of my wounds; but; alas, before I know it I am bleeding again elsewhere (with a new thought gotten out of control) and must rush in my prayer to the Physician to again staunch the flow of passion newly erupted in me.
If I catch it early enough, the bandage of prayer works well enough, by Grace, to allow me to stay in a little peace. But sometimes, due to laziness and inattention in my heart (nous), I spiritually ignore a wound and infection sets in. When the the feeling-thought is allowed to grow, when I dally in the self-exalting daydream or in the self-righteous grudge or in the delectable fantasy (already having birthed sin, according to St. James, which is now growing into death), then my whole mind is infected. My words and actions are influenced. The sin born in my mind begins to produce death in my members (in my body, in what I do and what I say). Sometimes I catch it at this point. Now repentance is more difficult. It sometimes takes days of struggle to return to peace. Often I must confess to my spiritual father to get my bearing back. Often there are specific sins I must confess and apologies I must make.
Although repentance is difficult at this point, it usually comes with a kind of Grace, a renewed energy to pay attention, to discipline myself: first externally, but then more importantly, internally. Here I commonly experience a kind of fear, a fear similar to the fear I experience when I get too near the ledge on the roof of a tall building or of a cliff. “That was too close,” I say to myself. And it is this fear that helps me move away from the ledge, away from whatever thoughts and feelings that enticed me in the first place. This fear-like feeling that drives me back away from the ledge I call ‘the fear of God.’ Now whether or not it is indeed what the Bible and the Holy Fathers mean when they use that term, I don’t know. Certainly my understanding of such things needs to grow. In the mean time, however, I have found it useful to think of the fear of God in this way.
Sometimes, however, even the fear of God is not enough. Sometimes we don’t repent. Sometimes we dance on the ledge, we play with spiritual knives, we run with spiritual scissors. The world is real, physically and spiritually; and in this real world people who play dangerously near the ledge—good, well intentioned people, people who don’t intend to fall—do sometimes fall off the ledge. By ‘fall off the ledge,’ I don’t mean commit some specific act, some namable, identifiable sin. It is possible to fall into pride, for example, and never commit any outwardly identifiable sin. Similarly, it is possible to commit an identifiable sin (even, as with King David, ‘big’ ones like adultery and murder) and suddenly come to your senses and repent.
By falling of the ledge I mean not only that I commit serious sin (inwardly or outwardly) but that I also begin to justify or defend it. I begin to think that my violence is justified; my illicit desire is “natural”; my exalted image of myself is “God’s calling.” Light becomes darkness and darkness becomes light. This is the warning Jesus gave to the Pharisees, perhaps even the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” Once we call good, bad and what is twisted, straight, then how can we be healed? When a person with an infected wound creating blood poisoning says that the bloated, puss-filled wound in his side is the way it is supposed to be, then how can he be persuaded to call the Doctor? From here repentance is most difficult—impossible really apart from a miracle of Grace, the same miracle that happened to the Prodigal Son in the pig stye.
From here repentance is most difficult, but not impossible. Jesus came into the world to save sinners—even those who don’t think they are sinning. I know. Many times, I have come to my senses in a pig stye. While most my pig styes have not been of the more famous outer kind (criminal offences or substance, sexual or gambling addictions), still I know several pig styes: the pig stye of self-righteous anger, the pig stye of intellectual arrogance and they pig stye of self-important judgement of others. These are the worst pig styes, the same pig styes frequented by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law with whom Jesus spoke so long ago. But even here, Jesus comes—for if Christ descended all of the way into hell itself, then a stinky white-washed tomb like my life sometimes becomes, this small mess is not hard for Him to enter. It is not hard for Him if only I will let Him, if only I will invite Him.
When I am in the pig stye, fallen off the ledge in one way or another, arguments and condemnations do little to reach me. I have found this to be the case with myself and when I am trying to help others. Condemnations, accusations and arguments do nothing—except annoy, anger and frustrate everyone. Grace, however, the Presence of the Holy Spirit, the beginning of prayer: these create the possibility of awakening, of coming to one’s senses. The suffering one experiences in the self-created hell of our pig styes, our self-justified worlds of sin and light-as-darkness and darkness-as-light, this suffering is often the very thing that leads us to look beyond our system, beyond our neat definitions and our justifications, our rights, and our strongly-held convictions: beyond all that has kept us clinging to food of the pig stye. Pain—once we get past the anger—often leads to prayer, not elegant prayer, not churchy prayer, but to prayer nonetheless: “God, if you are there, help me.” And God does help. God does come into our hell and slowly, gently brings us to our senses, and—if we will let Him—leads us out, leads us back to Himself.
Spiritual warfare is a gritty business. It is the real work of our inner lives. Even great saints fall into muddy pits. That we fall is not what determines our End. It is what we do when we fall that determines our End. Saints are those who cry out to God for help when they fall. Saints are those who become expert in getting back up again, of not justifying themselves, of relying on Grace every moment of the day—whether on the mountain top or in the deep valley.
May God teach us all to become such saints.