In homily 67, St. Isaac gives some signs or markers to help the monk discern whether or not he or she is actually progressing in their spiritual life. It seems to me that these markers apply as well to those struggling in the world as to those struggling in a hermitage.
Progress in developing the habit of attention, or what St. Isaac calls “moving forward intelligently,” is discerned by certain markers, just as “heedlessness” in this matter is also discerned by certain other markers. Heedlessness means that you are not paying attention to divine Grace (the “leaven” planted in our hearts), but rather are attending to scattered thoughts. The six markers of heedlessness are the following. Please note: one can experience aspects of both sets of signs in one’s life. This only means that although we are on the way, we still have far to go. These signs are not in any particular order.
Signs of Heedlessness
- “You secretly feel in yourself that you are weak in your faith” St. Isaac clarifies that by “faith,” he is not referring to credal faith, but rather to “the noetic strength that steadies the heart by the light of [noetic] understanding…so that…she casts her cares on God.” So a sign of spiritual heedlessness is the inability to cast one’s cares on the Lord.
- “You covet visible things.” (Position, Power, Possessions, Property, Privilege, Prestige)
- “Your confidence wanes.” He means here confidence in God. If your confidence has been based on things that pass away (your own strength, intelligence, the correctness of your rational understanding of things, or any of the six P’s listed above), then you will experience a loss of confidence on the way to learning to place all of your confidence in God.
- “You are being harmed by your neighbour.” St. John Chrysostom says that no one can harm you unless you let him. When I feel harmed by what my neighbour does or says against me, it is because I have become heedless of spiritual things. The Martyrs of Christ are able to love those who persecute them precisely because their enemies cannot harm them–cannot harm them so long as their eyes, the eyes of their heart, are fixed on Jesus.
- “Your whole soul is taken up with fault-finding in mouth and heart against every [person] and [in] every matter…even agains the Most High Himself.” For me, this is the sign that is easiest for me to recognize in myself. As soon as I notice that my mind is focused on picking out what is wrong with others, what they are doing or saying, then I know: my heart has wandered from Grace.
- “From time to time, your soul is shaken by fear so that you are terrorized.”
These are the signs, according to St. Isaac, by which we can discern that we have been heedless in our inner life.
The signs by which we can discern that we are “moving forward” in our spiritual life are the following.
- “You are strengthened in your hope, and you are enriched by prayer.” When we experience hope (not necessarily in a given situation, but in God’s providence and love regardless of the situation) and we experience blessing, Grace, or encouragement in prayer, then we know that we are moving forward on the right path.
- “The material of profit is never absent from your mind in everything you meet.” When we are moving forward in God, then we can find Grace and spiritual encouragement in anything we encounter. Trees can speak to us. What we see, what we notice, what we encounter, anything can become spiritually profitable to us when our minds are attending to the Grace in our hearts.
- “You have an awareness of the frailty of human nature; and on the one hand, by [this knowledge] you are kept from pride, and on the other, your neighbor’s faults are set at naught in your eyes.” When you are growing in your relationship with God, you acquire a growing knowledge of human brokenness and sin, and specifically of your own brokenness and sin. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit enabling you to become humble and to forgive the sins and offenses of others.
- “You long for departure from the body by reason of your aspiration for the [state] in which we shall live in the age to come.”
- “All of the afflictions that befall you openly and in secret you find to be rightly yours, all having descended on you precisely so as to keep you from conceit.”
- “For all of these things (afflictions) you render confession and thanks to God.”
These are the signs or markers by which we can discern that we are moving forward in our relationship with God.
In English, we talk about knowing something about ourselves, but St. Isaac uses the word “discernment.” This is an important distinction. Our inner life is full of bent mirrors, old tapes and perverted images. We cannot know it easily or well. However, we can discern certain things. We can discern that we are tending too far to the left (indulging the flesh) or too far to the right (unfruitful rigorism). We can discern signs that suggest that we have been heedless to our inner life, and we can discern signs that encourage us to persevere in our spiritual disciplines, in acquiring the “habits” of inner attention that allow us to attend to the “leaven” of Grace that has been placed in our hearts.
Those earnest for the spiritual life are often distressed because it seems to them that they are making no progress, but are actually getting worse. And in a certain sense, this is how it should be–not that they should be distressed, but that they grow in the perception of their own sin and brokenness. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, when He comes, convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgement. Consequently, one of the evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit in your life is that you are convinced more and more of your sin, lack of righteousness and of the just judgement of God.
St. Issac says (in homily 66) that we do not understand that we have “been accounted worthy of divine Grace and dispassion of soul” from a cessation of unseemly thoughts of various kinds nor from easy victory over such thoughts, nor from states of “lofty” thought that is entirely unsoiled and unshaken. This is not how we understand (or know) that divine Grace has been granted to us. How then do we know or understand the experience of divine Grace and dispassion? St. Isaac says that rather than by an absence of such unseemly thoughts, one knows he or she is experiencing dispassion and divine Grace by the fact that when such thoughts occur, one does not engage them, one does not “wage war with unseemly thoughts and crush them.” Rather than waring against such thoughts, the mind of one experiencing divine Grace and dispassion is “caught away” by the habit of mental prayer. The “leaven” of Grace that abides in the heart and that is by “habit” the focus of the mind’s attention, this leaven does not let the mind attend to the unseemly thoughts that bombard the mind, According to St. Isaac, such unseemly thought will continue to assail us so long as the mind is in a body of fallen flesh.
The victory over unseemly thoughts and the evidence of divine Grace and dispassion is that we ignore such thoughts and that our attention and focus remain on the “leaven” of Grace which through habit we have trained ourselves to attend to. Or, as in my case, I am just beginning to learn how to attend to.