Homily thirty-seven is one of St. Isaac’s longer homilies and consists of a series of questions and answers. The questions are posed by an apparently fictional disciple and fellow struggler in the hermitic life. The questions are such as, “What is spiritual prayer, and how is a man who struggles deemed worthy of [attaining] it?” Or, “How is it that many who, perhaps, practise these works do not sense tranquillity from passions and peace from thoughts?” There are thirty-four such questions over twenty-eight pages. Some questions are answered in a couple sentences, some take a few pages. Many of the questions and answers have to do specifically with the hermetic life and have no easily discerned application to those of us striving in the world. Other questions and answers can be applied, it seems to me, by scaling down, or adjusting the intensity of the question, answer and examples given to a level that makes sense and can actually be experienced by most people striving to know God in the world. And still others are just so profoundly beautiful, insightful and universally applicable, that you dare not touch them. They are jewels that we need only to admire and wonder at for the revelation of divine Light they offer. One such exchange is the following:
Question: “What is the sign that a man has attained to purity of heart, and when does a man know that his heart has entered into purity?
Answer: “When he sees all men as good and none appears to him to be unclean and defiled, then in very truth his heart is pure. For how could anyone fulfill the word of the Apostle, that ‘A man should esteem all better than himself’ with a sincere heart if he does not attain to the saying ‘A good eye will not see evil?” (cf: Philippians 2:3 and Habakuk 1:13).
Let us pause for reflection. Habakuk literally says, “God’s eyes are too pure to see evil.” Then the beatitude teaches us that the pure in heart see God. And John’s epistle teaches us that to see God is to become like Him. Thus, in the mind of St. Isaac, it makes perfect sense that the pure man will not see evil in another because A) that would not be seeing the other as better than himself and B) God’s eyes, according to Habakuk, are too pure to see evil.
Another exchange in this chapter that I have found very helpful has to do with humility and the unseen martyrdom. The question goes as follows:
Question: If, after a man has greatly toiled, laboured, and struggled, the thought of pride shamelessly assails him—taking occasion from the beauty of his virtues—and reckons up the magnitude of his toil, by what means should he restrain his thoughts and achieve such security in his soul as not to be persuaded by it?
What the questioner is asking is how does one protect oneself from his or her own success? How does one not say to oneself things like, “I handled that pretty well” or “All that hard work was worth it” or “It is a difficult struggle, but anyone who really wants to attain [such or such a virtue] or overcome [such or such a weakness] can do it—look, I did it” or, to use the example of St. Zosima from the Life of St. Mary of Egypt who attained great heights in the monastic discipline, but then began to be tormented with the thought: “who can teach me?” The questioner want to know how one can not be persuaded by such thoughts.
St. Isaac’s answer goes on for three pages so I will have to summarize it. He begins with a wonderfully pithy metaphor that in itself is enough of an answer. Meditating on this sentence has been very helpful for me. He begins his answer with these words: “When a man comes to know that he can fall away from God as a dry leaf falls from a tree, then he knows the [impotent] power of his [own] soul.” St. Isaac goes on to explain:
“When the Lord withdraws His help from a man and permits him to enter alone into battle with the devil, and He does not go with him as He is wont to go with those who struggle in the contest and to assist them, then that man’s strength is made manifest—nay rather, his defeat and consternation [are made manifest], and whether [or not] it was by his own strength that he acquired the aforesaid virtues and endured every struggle on their behalf. For God’s providence accompanies the saints at all times, protecting and strengthening them, and with its aid a man overcomes all…whether he enters the contest and sufferings of martyrdom or the other hardships that are undertaken and endured for God’s sake.”
What is our defence against the temptations of pride? How do we protect ourselves from thoughts about our own little successes? The answer St. Isaac gives is to remember that we “can fall away from God as a dry leaf falls from a tree.” The leaf clings to the tree only because the life of the tree is flowing through it. When the leaf becomes dry, it is because the life of the tree is no longer flowing in it. The life of the leaf is the life of the tree. The leaf has no life of its own. St. Isaac explains that at various levels and stages of our life in God we can all experience the withdrawal of God’s help. In a sense this is a gift, a gift to know our own soul and its weakness, its impotence, its dire need for God’s continual help, its dire need for the life of the Tree to flow through it.
In big and small ways God teaches us our weaknesses and thus our continuing dependence on His grace. St. Zosima had to leave his home (the monastery where he had lived for fifty years since he was three years old) and go on a three-year journey that led him to a new monastery with different practices leading him to meet in the desert St. Mary of Egypt—an experience that he then had to keep to himself for a couple of years before he could tell anyone. The whole experience humbled St. Zosima so that he could eventually say, “Glory to You, O Christ our God, who has shown me through this Your servant [St. Mary] how far away I stand from perfection (maturity).” Similarly, God teaches us. Sometimes by meeting or reading about someone whose life with God is miles beyond your own. And sometimes, as St. Isaac says, God humbles us by permitting us to enter alone into battle with the devil, by permitting us to experience struggle without God’s wonted (usual, habitual) assistance.
St. Isaac then gives two specific examples of the areas where we experience God’s help and where we will surely fall without it. The first area of struggle he mentions is the struggle against our own flesh, what back in homily 32 he referred to as the “unseen martyrdom.” The second example he gives has to do with actual torture and death in public martyrdom. It is only by the Grace God, the very Life of God flowing through us (like a green leaf), what St. Isaac calls “God’s providence” accompanying and protecting and strengthening us, it is only by the active help of God that we experience any victory over the flesh. This is how the public martyrs overcame torture and death, and this is how they also overcome who voluntarily undertake and endure the “other hardships” of the various unseen martyrdoms. “How else,” St. Isaac asks, “could human nature vanquish the power of the allurements which are incessantly active in a man’s members, and grieve him, and are able mightily to overpower him?” “Therefore O man,” St. Isaac goes on to say a little later, “do not show ingratitude to the providence which God manifests on your account.”
If we win any spiritual victories, if we manifest any virtues or gain even a little mastery over a passion, it is because of God’s help which God is wont to give us, but which for our salvation he can withdraw so that we do not become proud. St. Isaac continues:
“Have you not heard, O man, how many champions from the foundation of the world and the beginnings of time have fallen from the height of their struggle because they did not give thanks for this grace? …. It is one of the chief gifts of Christ that a man consecrates himself to the doing of good works and the practice of a virtuous discipline. For there are many who forget this grace, even that they have been accounted worthy…in God’s eyes [to] receive His gifts, and that they have been chosen to serve and minister unto God; instead of unceasingly thanking Him with their mouths for these things, they turn aside to pride and self-esteem. Their thinking is such, that they are not as men who have received the grace of liturgy [i.e. work in service of God] so as to serve God with a pure life and spiritual doing, but [they rather see themselves] as those who give God a present, instead of reckoning that He took them out from the midst of men and made them His intimates and initiates into the knowledge of His mysteries.”
God has given various gifts to mankind. And to some God has given the gift to know him intimately, to be an “initiate into the knowledge of His mysteries.” But this “liturgy,” this work God has given us, this life that God has given us to serve Him with, it is God’s desire that this liturgy be performed “with a pure life” and “spiritual doing” (which I think refers to the spiritual attentiveness that one can experience only while living a crucified life, a life of relative virtue and victory over the passions). And this is all a gift from God, a gift for which one must “unceasingly” thank Him, not because God needs the thanks, but because we need to be thankful. When we don’t remain unceasingly thankful, St. Isaac tells us, we fall into pride, into self-esteem (that is, into having a high view of ourselves, a view of ourselves that begins to turn away from God as the only source of all that is good in us). When this happens, God (out of love and in order to save us) let’s us go it alone. God lets us dry up and fall like a leaf from a tree so that we can learn humility, learn that whatever is good and godly in us is a gift of grace for which we must be continually thankful.
Falls are humiliating. Falls are embarrassing. Yet for many, it is our falls that save us. It is our falls that bring us to our senses, that teach us always to give thanks, aways to depend completely on the grace of God. St. Paul tells us in Romans that God is able to graft wild olive branches into ancient stock. He even says that God is able to graft cut off branches back into the same tree. God is the God who does wonders. God is the God who raises the dead, who makes dead bones live and stand as a great army. God is able to take fallen leaves and reattach them to the tree. God is able to restore the fallen, again and again and again. It is the life of the Tree that saves us, it is the life of the Tree gives us life. And St. Isaac tells us that when we remember to give thanks continually for this life, this gift God has given us, when we give thanks always, we are then protected from from pride, protected from pride and the fall that pride inevitably leads to.