In Homily 37, St. Isaac the Syrian discusses how a person comes to desire the heavenly life. In a series of questions and answers, he explains to the questioning novice how one comes to give himself or herself completely over to the experience of the heavenly life. One does this, according to St. Isaac, only through obeying Christ’s word to deny one’s self and take up one’s own cross to follow Christ by completely despising everything of the world. St. Isaac says, “Just as a man who is prepared to be crucified has only the thought of death in his mind, and he goes forth not supposing anymore to possess a share of the life of this present age, even so is the man who wishes to fulfill the Lord’s word. And this is the meaning of ‘take up his cross and follow me.’”
The unknown (and perhaps merely literary) novice whose questions St. Isaac is answering is a man striving to be completely united with God in prayer by following the monastic vocation of being a hermit. St. Isaac warns him that he cannot flourish, perhaps not even survive, as a hermit unless he makes a total break with the world—not only externally, but also in his mind and heart. St. Isaac warns, “It is often the case with some, that half of their soul goes out in pursuit of the Lord and half remains in the world, and so their heart is not severed from things here, but they are divided within themselves, and sometimes they look ahead, sometimes backward.” St. Isaac goes on to exhort this novice hermit not to be “sluggish in [his] mind” but to completely let go of the things of this world.
When I read St. Isaac’s words about half-heartedness, I think: “That describes me.” I’m the one who is only half-souled, who is looking forward and then looking backward again. How can I, as someone who is not a hermit, who lives in the world, who buys and sells and cares for the needs of a family, how can I be saved? Is it at all possible for those of us who are not hermits, who do not make a total break with the world, is it possible that we too might experience the Divine Light of the transfiguration while still in this body of flesh?
St. Isaac doesn’t give advice for us who live in the world. St. Isaac is writing for hermit monks. His advice is for men and women who live alone in huts and caves and little trailers in the mountains and deserts and spend their nights in psalmody, contemplation and stillness and their days in quiet labour with continuing inner prayer and stillness. Those who live this way, or who strive to live this way, are able to take the advice of St. Isaac directly, just as it comes. But we who struggle for holiness in the world, we must be careful how we read St. Isaac. We in the world must understand that our salvation will be worked out where we are in the world, not in some other setting that is not a real option for us.
A few Sundays ago, I was speaking to a zealous young man during the coffee hour after the Liturgy. He is a married man with a pregnant wife, and he struggles to find meaning and purpose in his work and in “the way things are” in his life and his extended family. He was lamenting that he wanted to experience a life of prayer and quiet, that he thought that such a life would bring him peace and purpose. And although I generally do not assume that I know God’s will for someone else (heck, I seldom know God’s will for myself), I was able to say confidently to this young man that monasticism was not God’s will for his life. I told him that he had already chosen a path and it was on that path that he would find his salvation, not in wishing or wondering or imagining a different path.
We in the world, as St. Isaac rightly points out, experience salvation as a sort of half in, half out kind of thing. It’s not that we are not being entirely saved, but it’s that our experience of that salvation is not nearly as intense or as consistent or as pure as it may be experienced by someone like St. Isaac who lives completely away from the world and has learned to cut off the world in his heart. For those of us in the world, even if we are able at times or for brief moments to cut off the love of the world, still, we are drawn back to the world because we are in the world. We have people to talk to, messages to return, bills to pay, money to make, people for whom we are responsible, people we must love and care for. This is our life, the arena in which our salvation is being worked out. This is our life and even if we are able at times to cut off the love of the world and the things of the world, still we often find ourselves, as St. Isaac says, sometimes looking ahead (to the reality of the age to come, a reality already present though so often difficult to perceive) and sometimes looking behind (to the passing shadow of the worries and cares and the deceitfulness of riches that so mark our worldly experience).
There is for me a certain “Aha” moment, when I read about the divided heart and the experience of striving to look forward and yet finding myself looking backward again. It’s an ‘aha’ moment because I see: Yes, that’s the reason. That’s the reason why I keep turning back to the world in my mind. That’s the reason why I can’t stay consistent. That’s the reason why my heart is so often torn. I’m drawn back to the world because I am still in the world. Flight from the world is the gift and calling of some. Some flee the world and in monasteries and hermitages ascend the heavenly heights and remain there for hours or even days at a time. We on the flat land struggle to catch a glimpse, as the clouds part for a moment, of that holy peak of spiritual ascent. And then we are distracted again. Then we are drawn back by an urgent need, a crying baby, yet another fire to be put out. And so we carry the memory of the holy place we have only glimpsed from afar. And yet having glimpsed it, we know it is there. Heaven is real. Heaven is real and though it seems far away, it is not actually far away.
I use the metaphor of a mountain peak that I glimpse as though it were far away, but St. Isaac and, as far as I have read, all of the holy fathers and mothers who have actually dwelt in the heavenly reality even while still on earth, these all tell us that heaven is not far away. Heaven is as near as our breath. “The Kingdom of heaven is within you” or “among you,” Jesus said. Heavenly reality only seems far away because of my distraction in the world, because of the fuzziness of my mental sight that is so used to focusing on earthly things, that it cannot focus well on the spiritual reality that it occasionally catches a glimpse of. That’s why it seems so far away at times.
Many of us have had mountain-top experiences at one time in our life or another. We have had times when God seemed right there, so close that, at that moment it seemed like nothing to offer God everything, to sacrifice all for the sake of Christ. These mountain-top experiences, at least for me, are very few and far between. It is a kind of miracle when this happens. But like most miracles, it happens not so that we don’t have to suffer, don’t have to slog through the rest of life on the plains. Rather, God gives us these moments as signs, as encouragement to keep us on the way, as a foretaste so that we know what the coming main meal will be. But the wonderful experience of nearness to God soon passes and we find ourselves back in the world, back in the arena of our salvation, back now having to fulfill the promise of giving our life to God. On the mountain top it seemed that it would be so easy, but on the plains, in the mud and snirt (a Canadian term referring to snow mixed with dirt), in the messiness of the lives we actually live, giving our life to God is much more difficult and messy than we ever imagined it would be.
But this is our salvation. It wouldn’t be called faith if we could see it clearly. It wouldn’t be called sacrifice if it were easy to do. We wouldn’t have to trust in God if we already knew what we were doing and how we were supposed to get there. We don’t. We don’t know what we are doing or how we are supposed to do it, so we muddle along. We seek counsel and advice (that, by the way, is part of the reason why there is a Church: to preserve the teaching of holy people who have gone before us). We pray. We try different things. We go with what works for us. And occasionally, we catch a glimpse inside ourselves of the heavenly reality that St. Isaac and other holy men and women speak of. But mostly when we look into ourselves we see our distraction. We see the world as it has crept in again, as it has taken over our mind, again.
But this is where I find the Jesus Prayer so useful. When I see my spiritual nakedness, the sinful, worldly and often perverse thoughts and images that so easily take up residence in my mind. Then I say the Prayer. And when I pray, it’s not just words. The words have content. The content is me, the mess I am, the great need I have, right now, for God’s mercy to save me from myself, from myself and from the world that wants to live inside me. And amazingly, sometimes I do seem to actually pray, to actually connect to God in some way. It is as though the very messiness of my mind that turned my attention away from God, when I notice it and begin to beg for mercy, turns my attention back to my Master, back to the still and quiet place within me where I can glimpse for just a moment—even if it is as from afar—that heavenly reality that reorients me, that reminds me of who I am, what I am doing, and most importantly, whose I am.