One of the realities of created life in this fallen world is variableness, according to St. Isaac the Syrian. Variableness is the reality of change, both good and bad. In a sense, you can say that this variableness of life is what mankind chose (and continues to choose) in the Garden of Eden by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Life as we know it is a varying experience of both good and evil, pleasure and pain, joy and sadness. Even in our relationship with God, we experience mountain tops and valleys, or what some of the Fathers refer to as the abundance of Grace and the withdrawal of Grace.
Of course, in a very important sense, abundance and withdrawal of Grace refer our experience. Our experience of abundance and withdrawal of Grace does not mean that God is any less present in our lives. God is present in the abundance of Grace and in the withdrawal. Nonetheless, the mountain tops and valleys of our spiritual life are often quite troubling. Each new valley brings us again to our knees as we wonder if we have made any progress whatsoever in our spiritual life, if we have taken even one step nearer to God. When we are on the mountain top we think we have finally made it, that we have finally acquired a bit of the Grace of God. When we are on the mountain top we rejoice in the ease of prayer, the nearness of peace, and we marvel at the sense of compassion for the whole creation (and even our enemies) that seems to flow through us. That’s the mountain top.
On the mountain top we don’t want to remember that the valley is coming. We don’t want to remember that everything that seems so easy and the Grace that seems so near now will change. In a little while prayer will be difficult again and Grace will not seem so near. Variation: this is St. Isaac’s word for it. And St. Isaac tells us that variation will be with us until the grave. It is the way of salvation for us in this fallen world. When we don’t realize this, valleys can seem unbearably low—largely because we don’t think we should have to pass through them, because we think something is wrong, because we wrongly thought we had things pretty much figured out, back on the last mountain top (so many months or years ago).
However, there is a way to level out our experience of the mountains and valleys, the good and the evil of this life. For St. Isaac, it is called repentance. Repentance keeps us from assuming too much on the mountain tops and from losing prayer and the nearness of God in the valleys. Repentance for St. Isaac does not refer to a change of behaviour, as we generally think of it. For St. Isaac repentance refers to prayer itself: “continual, intense…prayer filled with compunction.” We repent when we remain in (or return to) prayer.
Prayer is a habit born of effort (you really do have to make yourself do it) and a continual awareness of the nearness of God (whether you feel it or not) coupled with a continual awareness of your own frailty, or changeability, or variability—what I often refer to as brokenness. Like a broken cup, I cannot hold the Grace God gives me. Like a broken wheel, I cannot continue straight in the path God has set for me. Like a broken record, I can’t stop repeating in my mind what I should have forgotten long ago. And like a spoiled child, I cannot stop thinking about myself: what I like and what will make me happy. My body is continually slipping out of my control, my eyes and ears and appetites wandering where they should not be. My brokenness is so obvious, yet I continually forget that I am broken. I forget that I am broken and so I forget to pray. And in my forgetfulness I think I have things pretty well under control, and my attention wanders everywhere: everything is important and interesting to me except the One Thing Needful.
This knowledge of my own brokenness is the source of compunction. Compunction literally means “with piercing.” Compunction is a pain, sometimes literal, or nearly literal, in our heart or mind caused by our awareness of our brokenness—both our own personal brokenness and the brokenness we share with all humanity and that is manifest in the pain and suffering of the world. Compunction with the awareness of the nearness of God (felt or not) leads to intensity of prayer, or what St. Isaac simply calls repentance.
Repentance, or this way of continual, intense and compunction-filled prayer, is something we need “throughout the twenty-four hours of the night and day” according to St. Isaac. It is prayer that can be expressed in all sorts of prayers. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can be expressed in the Jesus Prayer or some similar prayer as we call out to Christ in our hearts even while we must also be doing other things with our minds and bodies. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can be expressed through akathist hymns or daily prayers. It can be expressed through prayerful attention in matins or vespers and especially in the Divine Liturgy. Compunction-filled, intense prayer can even (and perhaps sometimes best) be expressed through the silent cry of the heart for help and the silent longing of the heart for wholeness, salvation, and deliverance for ourselves and for those we love and for the whole world.
When we pray with compunction, with the knowledge of our brokenness and the awareness of our changeability, when we pray this way all of the time, then it is easier to stay a little longer on the mountain top without our mind constructing false structures of permanence (like St. Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration trying to make permanent that which was meant to be only a taste, a glimpse into the Age to Come). And when we pray with compunction the valleys are never quite so low, because the comfort promised to those who mourn is near at hand. And the suffering is somehow lessened because the valleys become more familiar to us because we know we have walked this way before and will walk this way again, because the tears of repentance and the pain of compunction no longer surprise us, but are our old friends, our companions on the journey through this transient age and into the Age to Come, into the Age in which all sickness, sorrow and sighing will flee away.