In Homily 43, St. Isaac speaks of three areas of ‘discipline,’ or areas in which we must guide or rule our life. Proper discipline in these areas leads to purity. These three areas are bodily discipline, leading to purification of the body; discipline of the mind, leading to purification of the soul; and spiritual discipline, leading to purification of the mind. Now right off the bat you might notice that St. Isaac uses the word ‘mind’ to describe two different areas or levels of spiritual life. That’s one of the things you have to be aware of when reading spiritual literature, especially ancient spiritual literature: words do not always have fixed meanings, but are sometimes used rather fluidly to point to inner or spiritual realities that can only be discerned by the whole context in which the word is used and by the reader’s own knowledge and experience of that inner or spiritual reality that the spiritual writer is pointing toward. Consequently, great humility is called for, especially from those of us just beginning to pay attention to the inner life. Words like ‘mind,’ ‘soul,’ ‘heart’ and ‘spirit’ can in one context be referring to very different realities, and in another context be synonyms.
Well then, you may ask, how are you supposed to know what the spiritual writer is talking about if the meaning of the words keep changing? St. Paul In 1 Corinthians 2 contrasts two ways of understanding words: naturally and spiritually. The natural person—literally, the one who processes knowledge (merely) according to his soul—can’t understand the spiritual meaning of the words St. Paul is using.
St. Maximus the Confessor might explain the problem this way: the soulish person is one whose mind (nous) has it’s attention focused on things that can be sensed with the body. A mind trained by this attention to what is sensual can only perceive sensual realities. Consequently, to this person, sensual realities are the only realities. For such a person, things of the spirit can be nothing but foolishness, which is what St. Paul says: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
Or to used a metaphor from St. Isaac, the undisciplined body and soul only perceives and processes sensual input (not just the five senses, but anything we can feel including much of what we call emotion). Such a soul only perceives ‘gross’ (heavy, thick, dense) reality. It perceives, but does not understand. For example, such a soul might feel the gross emotion of anger and react against the apparent cause (the immediate, visible, external cause) of the anger, but not be able to reflect on the fact that the actual source of the anger is within herself. However, as a soul is ‘refined’ through bodily, mental and and eventually spiritual disciplines, she develops a ‘fineness.’ This fineness enables the soul not only to understand sensory things, feelings, and experiences and to process them in healthy ways; but this fineness also “draws [the soul] from the state where the thoughts are passionately engrossed to the state where they are moved by her [the soul’s] divine vision.”
And this brings us back to chapter 43. St. Isaac is telling us that there are three levels, or areas of discipline that lead us to a kind of purification enabling us to experience divine vision. One way to understand what St. Isaac means by divine vision is to think of it as seeing yourself and your experiences as God sees them. Bodily discipline leads to and makes possible mental discipline, and the purification of the mind through mental discipline enables us to experience divine vision. Through continued mental discipline leading to spiritual discipline, St. Isaac tells us a soul can come to what he calls ‘hypostatic theoria,’ which, I think means: the understanding or knowledge that comes from personal encounter with God, free of all images, words or concepts. This encounter, St. Isaac tells us is experienced as ‘awestruck wonder at God’ where all perception of the sensory world has left us. It is the experience of those in heaven where ‘human nature never ceases from its awestruck wonder at God, and entertains no thought at all concerning created beings.’
This is were the three ways of discipline lead, where it ends, not where it begins. The way of discipline begins with bodily discipline, “bodily labours done to purify the flesh through practising virtue in visible deeds, by which the impurity of the flesh is filtered out.” Notice the ‘filter’ image. St. Isaac uses this image often. The ‘gross’ or thick things of sin and of the passions get filtered out as, through discipline, we refine our filter. As our inner filter, or our spiritual perceptions, are refined, we “filter out” the impurity of the flesh and become aware of the finer mental and spiritual realities. This becoming aware is what St. Isaac often calls ‘theoria,’ seeing or understanding. The bodily disciplines, in a sense, create a space where the discipline of the soul or mind can take place. In this space created by bodily discipline, the soul can actually notice and pay attention to the first level of theoria: the theoria of created things.
Let’s consider some examples. For example, disciplining oneself not to speak every time one feels like it, creates space where in one can think about and notice not only what one is desiring to say, but why, where it comes from, and what possible unintended consequences the words might bring about. Or to consider another example: acts of kindness or charity, which always seem to require much more of us than we expected, create a space or a possibility in our souls for us to reflect on our selfishness, greed, and arrogance (arrogance as I slowly realize that I think I’m better than someone else). Or consider the rather obvious example of the bodily discipline of going to bed on time and getting up on time. If you go to bed early enough to get a full night sleep and get up early enough to pray, you will create space for the mental disciple of prayer.
One might be tempted to think St. Isaac is presenting to us is a kind of causal chain of spiritual growth: Bodily discipline makes space for mental discipline, mental disciplines lead to the perception of the divine encounter. However, to attempt to systemize St. Isaac would be a huge mistake. St. Isaac may be describing what most people experience, maybe everyone experiences, in their developing perception of and relationship with God, but St. Isaac is not at all suggesting a system, he is merely describing an experience. God is not a system. God does not approach human beings according to a system. God comes to human beings and leads each person to Himself according to love. Very experienced holy fathers and mothers (like St. Isaac) in their love for their spiritual children sometimes set out something like guide posts or mile markers to help encourage them on the way to Christlikeness. And while the spiritual children receive great encouragement from the uncanny way these guideposts and markers do describe their actual experience along the way, these guideposts and markers in no way define or limit the ways God works redeeming and saving our souls.
For example at the beginning stages of our purification, God often allows us to perceive a faint reflection or a distant echo of the awestruck wonder at God that we will all share in the age to come. And just as a faint light can seem very bright to a person who has spent a long time in a dark room, so even this barely perceptible aroma of the wonder of the Age to Come that God has graciously and mercifully allowed us to perceive, even this small taste is enough to overwhelm us with joy and hope. God encourages our baby steps. God grants us gifts of understanding, of theoria, along the way, gifts that humble us and motivate us. God is personally saving each person, and there is no system about it. Nevertheless, we all do seem to pass similar markers along the way. We all do seem to be helped by similar guideposts.
It’s a narrow way we must walk. On the one hand, we do indeed encounter God by His Grace in perceptible ways at the early stages of our spiritual life. But on the other hand, we must not get cocky. We cannot forget that we are just beginners. We cannot forget that we have so much more growing to do, so much more needs to be purified for us to see as God created us to see. To bodily labours must be added the discipline of the mind, which St. Isaac tells us, “humbles the soul, filters out her crass notions of things that perish, and draws her from the state where the thoughts are passionately engrossed to the state where they are moved by her divine vision.” This discipline of the mind, which he also calls, ‘noetic discipline,’ “is a work of the heart carried on without pause in the pondering upon judgement, that is, upon God’s righteousness and the judgements He has decreed; unceasing prayer of the heart; mindfulness of the providence and care of God active in this world particularly and universally at once; and a watching for secret passions.” And it is this very mental, or noetic, work that purifies our mind or refines our noetic perception to a point that we can experience divine vision—which then brings us ‘near,’ St. Isaac tells us, to the third arena of discipline, that of spiritual discipline.
Spiritual discipline, we are told, “is an activity apart form the senses.” It involves no mental images or visions or words or concepts. It leads to the vision of that ‘unutterable pristine glory,” the vision of God experienced by Adam and Eve in Paradise, the vision of God the Saints experience after the resurrection, a knowledge of or encounter with the uncreated God that is personal and undistracted by any created thing. This was the experience St. Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians, the experience of the third heaven, where he heard things that are ‘unlawful’ for a person to utter.
I will have to take St. Isaac’s word for this. As a beginner, I have spent most of my time and energy in discipline one—trying to keep the flesh under some semblance of control. I have also made some weak attempts at mental discipline, but I’ve experienced no lasting victories in that realm. So I certainly have no direct experience in the third level, the spiritual discipline. But as I said before, this does not mean that God has not in some very small and faint ways graciously granted me a whiff of that Wedding Supper to come—at least enough so that when I read St. Isaac and other holy people who have actually been there, when I read what they write about the Heavenly Banquet, the ‘hypostatic theoria’ of the age to come, it’s enough that when I read about what they have actually experienced, my longing is only increased. I believe them and I trust—at least to the small degree that I understand it—I trust the way they have mapped out for us. And even if I don’t get very far down the road, that narrow way, in my short lifetime, still, I’m sure this is the road I want to be on.