In my last blog I spoke of one of the ways zeal can be wrongly directed. Today I’d like to share a few thoughts on rightly directed zeal based on the 55th homily of St. Isaac the Syrian. Let’s begin with this quote:
In the beginning of its movement, the impulse of a desire of good is accompanied by a certain zeal, similar to coals of fire in its fervent heat. Such zeal usually walls this impulse about like a rampart and chases away from it every opposition, obstacle, and barrier that might appear anywhere near it. For this zeal possesses great strength and unspeakable power to shield the soul at every moment from slackness and from fear of the assaults of every tribulation.
The first thing I need to point out is that the word “movement” refers to any thought or impulse that occurs to us at the deepest level of our mind or heart. Unfortunately, most of us are so inattentive to ourselves that we seldom recognize a thought or impulse at this stage, at the very beginning, the stage that many of the Church fathers refer to as movement. Most of us don’t even notice that we are thinking a thought or feeling an impulse until it develops into a passion that is evoking strong feelings. Nevertheless, with attention, we can begin to notice our thoughts and impulses at an earlier stage. In this particular passage from St. Isaac, the specific movement he is referring to is the initial thought or impulse to do good. This initial movement to do good, St. Isaac tells us, is always accompanied by zeal, which is the energy to carry out the thought, the motivation to do the good that has occurred to us.
However, St. Isaac isn’t referring to just any good, to just anything we might happen to call good. St. Isaac is referring specifically to the good of the soul, to the pursuit of virtue. He says, “This faculty [zeal] is placed in us by God for our profit so as to safeguard the boundaries of her [the soul’s] nature, and to send forth the impulse of her vehemence for the fulfilling of her natural desire, which is virtue.” The thought or impulse toward good is the thought and impulse to virtue, which is our natural state. That is, virtue is our natural unfallen state, the natural state of those who are in Christ, who are being transfigured into the image of Christ. Zeal, St. Isaac tells us, is the fiery energy God gives our soul to follow through in acquiring and defending—St. Isaac uses the word shield—the virtue of our soul, that is, the Christlikeness of our soul. St. Isaac says,
“For it is zeal that stimulates, makes zealous, kindles, and strengthens a man at times and seasons to shun the flesh in the afflictions and fearful trials that confront him, to surrender his soul frequently to death and, for the sake of accomplishing that thing which his soul greatly desires, to withstand the forces of the apostate.”
(note: an apostate is someone who has fallen away from the faith. And in the context of St. Isaac’s homilies, it can refer to someone who may indeed have Orthodox faith outwardly, but is not pursuing holiness inwardly.)
In addition to referring to zeal as a shield, he also refers to it as a guard dog. St. Isaac uses an analogy that I find helpful. He refers to sinful and unwanted thoughts and impulses as birds that fly around our soul. Zeal is the guard dog that barks and warns us that these unwanted thoughts are there and motivates us to chase these birds away. Zeal is also connected to what St. Isaac calls “a certain fear.” The beginning of zeal, he says, “is when a man conceives a certain fear, frightening him concerning the virtue that he has gained or will gain, that perhaps it might be stolen away or brought to naught by some occurrence.” This fear is an aspect of the fear of God, an aspect that recognizes that whatever godliness, fruit of the Spirit or working of Grace I have in my life—all of this St. Isaac summarizes in the word ‘virtue’—whatever virtue there is in my life can easily be squandered away and lost if I do not carefully guard my heart. In one unguarded moment, I can give in to temptation, I can sell my birthright for a pot of porridge, I can eat of the forbidden fruit, I can deny Christ three times in my heart, words and/or actions.
Some of you may ask, “Where is forgiveness in all of this?” The answer is that forgiveness is not the issue. The problem isn’t on God’s side. God forgives. Forgiveness is not the problem. The problem is that I have made a choice—even if it was not a fully conscious choice. At some deep level, I have turned away from Grace, I have denied Christ, I have despised the Holy Spirit. I’m the one who has been affected, not God. I am the one who has turned away from Grace. And this turning away affects me, it robs me of virtue, it darkens my soul somewhat, it embraces the works of the flesh instead of the fruit of the Spirit. And this is what zeal, properly directed, helps me avoid. Fear of God and the zeal it produces motivates me to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh (see Romans 8:4 and Galatians 5:16). It spurs me to grow in godliness, not fall away from it. It impels me to become more like Christ, not less. Fear of God and the zeal it produces does all of this, if this is what I want. God has placed what St. Isaac calls “a certain kind of fear” in our hearts that releases zeal to both warn and motivate us to do or suffer whatever is necessary in order to guard and increase the virtue within our souls.
Fear can also be demonic, St. Isaac tells us. When fear does not concern the guarding of the virtue in our souls, but is concerned with the comforts and cares of the body, then it becomes demonic:
But when the same fear is on behalf of something pertaining to the body, it becomes satanic. For in such a case a man has faltered in his faith in divine providence and has forgotten how God takes care and provides for those who contend for virtue’s sake [i.e. for Christ’s sake], sheltering them at every hour, even as the Holy Spirit says by the mouth of the prophet, ‘The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous,’ and so on; and again, ‘The Lord is the strength of them that fear Him’: and the same prophet says, as it were in the person of God, to those who fear Him, ‘No evils shall come nigh them, and no scourge shall draw nigh unto thy dwelling’” (Ps. 33:15; 24:14; 90:10).
But fear that is on behalf of the soul and the guarding of virtue, this fear is “divine,” St. Isaac tells us.
I think most of us have experienced this guard of virtue, this dog that guards our soul at various times of our life, especially when we are young. I remember a certain trepidation that I felt the first time I stole something, or when I was about to do something that at some deep level I knew, or at least strongly suspected was wrong. However, this fear of losing virtue goes away as we surrender our virtue to whatever passion is driving us or luring us away from what is good and true. For some of us, it may have been many years since we have experienced this fear and zeal for virtue’s sake, so long in fact that we may not remember ever experiencing it. However, no matter how long it has been since we have experienced this fear and the zeal to acquire and guard virtue, we can experience it again. We can experience it again if, in deed, we want to experience it strongly enough to begin to attend to our hearts, to begin to attend to the virtue—or lack of virtue—in our hearts.
At this point, I think it is necessary that I interject a word of warning. There is a misdirected zeal and a satanic fear that is commonly mistaken for this attention to virtue. This false zeal is the zeal of the Pharisees, the fear of what is seen outwardly, the zeal that focuses on what can be seen. On the contrary, the fear and zeal that St. Isaac is speaking of can be noticed by others only indirectly, tangentially, only as spirit or tone or attitude. It is subtly suggested not in the what of what we do but in the how. It’s a zeal that works in our own soul and is concerned with the Life of Christ, with virtue, there, in our soul. Consequently, a certain outward action say, for example, like going to a bar or a movie theatre or even a casino, such an action could for one person present a threat to the virtue in his or her soul, but to another person be no threat whatsoever. A specific outward behaviour by itself cannot reveal the workings of the soul. This is one of the many reasons why we cannot judge others. We not only should not judge others, but we actually cannot judge others. That’s the reason why we shouldn’t. We just don’t know what is or isn’t happening in the heart and soul of another.
Nonetheless, virtue leaks out. And virtue leaks out most and best when people try to hide it. Virtue leaks out when it is just who you are—or rather, who you have become. When we think that virtue is mostly about what we do or don’t do, we may be dangerously close to the satanic fear and misdirected zeal that St. Isaac speaks of.
Now of course there is much, much more that can and needs to be said on this topic. I can’t say it all or balance everything in one essay—probably not even in a hundred essays. But I don’t have to. Please, go yourself and read the writings of St. Isaac the Syrian or St. Maximus the Confessor. Read what holy people have said, not merely what a confused and sinful priest writes. I’m only emphasizing what seems to me to be important to emphasize right now. To get a balanced understanding, you have to go to the sources yourself (and the most important source is in your own heart).