One of the recurring statements in St. Isaac the Syrian’s homilies is that we will not be completely free from the experience of passionate desires until our death. Consequently, it is necessary for us to find a certain peace in the knowledge of our shadows, of our weaknesses. It’s not that it’s “OK” to have passions–as though we were supposed to give up and just let certain persistent passions have their way with us. No, never. We are always to resist sin. And this is St. Isaac’s point exactly, that until we die, we will have to resist sin. Nonetheless, the fact that we still have shadows, that we are aware of sin and passions still at work in our bodies, does not mean that the Grace of God is not also at work in us.
In fact, I have come to think that the stronger the Grace of God is at work in our lives the more (not the less) we become aware of our weaknesses. This seems to me to be in accord with what we read in the Epistles where St. Paul is continually “boasting” and “glorying” in his weaknesses. However, it is very difficult for most of us to glory in our weaknesses. It is very difficult for many of us to draw close to God while at the same time being aware of our weaknesses. We think, perhaps, that if we freely acknowledge our failings, it means that we are not taking our sins seriously. Or perhaps we think that God will somehow hold back from us if we are aware of our weaknesses—as if God hasn’t been aware of our weaknesses all along.
I think many of us have a faulty understanding of the way holiness works. We wrongly assume that holiness, or freedom from sin and passion, is something we attain and then is ours, apart from the continual participation in the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is something we experience as we are filled with and cooperate with the Holy Spirit. It’s not something we possess or can continue in apart from the continual abiding in Christ—like the branches abiding in the vine.
Recently someone asked me how holiness is possible if, as St. Isaac says, we will experience passions so long as we are in the body. Perhaps it seemed to her to be too ironic that we strive against sin and the passions knowing that we will never be completely rid of their influence in this life. I explained to her that freedom from the passions comes not so much from our effort–although we must always make an effort. Freedom from the passions comes in our drawing near to God. It is only in our relationship with Christ, as our attention is directed toward Him, that we experience victory over our weaknesses: we are more than conquerors, St. Paul tells us, in Christ. Even as we are aware of our weaknesses, we conquer when our mind and attention are in Christ.
For example, in the Orthodox monastic tradition, there are stories of hermit monks who attribute the success of their prayer life to their fear of bears. Alone in the Russian wilderness, these hermits prayed fervently that God would deliver them from the bears. Every time they heard an unusual sound in the night, these frightened monks would pray fervently to God for deliverance. And God would deliver them. How often the fears of these monks were actually justified, that is, how often there really were bears threatening them—this is irrelevant. Reality is always irrelevant to the passions. Our passions cause us to fear (even when there is nothing to fear), inflame in us lust (even when our lust cannot be satisfied), and incite anger (even when there is nothing actually worth being angry about). Our passions don’t care about reality.
However, like the monks afraid of bears, we too can use our passions, our weaknesses, as goads to drive us to God in prayer. A person inflamed with passionate lust who does not want to sin has only one recourse to salvation and that is to call out to God for help. When a person feels anger rising in him or her self, there is only one way to break the cycle: call out to God for help. The very weakness, the very debilitating quality we find in ourselves, if we let it, can provide the energy to pray. Seeing the weakness gaining strength in ourselves, we flee to the only One who can save us.
Some of the Church Fathers speak of a kind of self-knowledge that leads to understanding yourself as a gate keeper. I am not the passion that is attacking me. I am the gate keeper who does or does not let the passion have its way with me. But just as the gate keeper in a city is not the king nor does he command the army, we too must run to the King when we see our passions rising up against us. We must turn our attention away from the passion banging at the gate and run to implore the King to save us. And the King does save us.
It is amazing how often what begins as a very strong feeling within me (a passion or a weakness of some kind), quickly dissipates when I shift my focus away from the struggle, away from the passion, away from the bears clawing at my door; and I focus my attention on the One who can save me, the One who is the King of me. It is the King’s job to fight the enemies at the gate. My job is to run to Him. I think this is the mystery of weakness that St. Paul discovered: when I am weak, then I am strong. When I see my weaknesses and proclivities to sin, I turn to the One who saves. I turn to the One drives away bears. I turn to the One who is more than a conquerer; and thus, aware of my weakness, I experience a certain amount of victory over it.
I am not saying that any of this is easy. I think it is one of the greatest struggles of the Christian life: learning to bring (even as an offering) all of our weaknesses and fears to Christ, learning how to turn our attention away from our passions roaring at the gate and to flee to our King—the only One who can deliver us. But as we practice, as we begin where we are and learn to call out “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me” even while we find ourselves in a deluge of confusing thoughts and raging feelings, even at that moment we can begin to pray, to call out to God for mercy, for help in our time of need. And if we continue to pray, our focus will shift; our attention will move away from the bears, and towards the King. And as that happens we will begin to experience the deliverance that only the King can supply.
We don’t clean ourselves up before we pray—then we would never pray (or we would only pray the prayers of the Pharisees). We come to God in prayer bringing all of our weaknesses with us, even, perhaps glorying in our weaknesses. We glory in our weaknesses because we know that any deliverance we experience, any good that comes from our lives will only be evidence of God’s great love and power to save even the most screwed up, even the chief of sinners. We glory in our weakness because we know that our weakness is only another opportunity for God to reveal His greatness.