Discernment


Something I’m reading at the moment that seemed worth sharing:

Holy souls are led and guided by the Spirit of Christ, who directs them wherever he wishes them to go. Sometimes he leads them by his will through heavenly thoughts, sometimes through the body. Wherever he wishes, there they minister to him. Just as the feet of the birds are the wings, so the heavenly light of the Spirit takes up the wings and thoughts worthy of the soul and leads and directs the soul as he knows best.

Therefore, when you hear such things, look to yourself and see whether you really possess these things in your own soul. These are not mere and empty words, but we are dealing with a work that truly goes on in the soul. And if you do not possess these very important spiritual goods but you are lacking in them, be moved to sorrow, grieve and be continually in mourning as one who is still dead in regard to the Kingdom. And as one lies wounded, continually cry out to the Lord and ask with confidence that he may deign to give you this true life.

And so God, who made your body, did not give it life from its very own nature nor from the body itself, nor from the food, drink, clothing and footwear that he gave the body, but he arranged it that your body, created naked, should be able to live my means of such extrinsic things as food, drink, and clothing. (If the body were to attempt to exist only by its own constituted nature without accepting these exterior helps, it would deteriorate and perish.) In a similar way, it is so with the human soul. It does not have by nature the divine light, even though it has been created according to the image of God. For, indeed, God ordered the soul in his economy of salvation according to his good pleasure that it would enjoy eternal life. It would not be because of the soul’s very own nature but because of his Divinity, of his very Spirit, of his light, that the soul would receive its spiritual meat and drink and heavenly clothing which are truly the life of the soul.

As, therefore, the body, as was said above, does not have life in itself, but receives it from outside, that is, from the earth, and without such material things of the earth it cannot live, so the soul, unless it be regenerated into that “land of the living” (Ps 27:13) and there be fed spiritually and progress by growing spiritually unto the Lord and be adorned by the ineffable garments of heavenly beauty flowing out of the Godhead, without that food in joy and tranquillity, the soul cannot clearly live.

Saint Macarius the Great, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 10-11 (pp. 42-43).

One of the things that I have been aware of for some time is the concern that one sometimes hears that people will become involved in the Church for the wrong motives. Particularly in a society like ours with its rampant poverty, there is a fear that people will come to Church for what they can get out of it. And this can be more subtle than simply a desire for material gain – as Thomas Scarborough expressed it in a recent post:

if all is working as it should, people may find many privileges they do not find elsewhere: status where they have had none, forgiveness where they have been stained by sin, a voice where they have been ignored — and so on. This applies to people high and low.

Now I do think that there is a point to these concerns. I have heard horror stories of missionary activities that effectively sought to buy people’s conversion. And I agree with Thomas that there needs to be a true discernment of motivations.

However, sometimes when I hear such concerns raised, or when I raise them myself, I become uncomfortable at what seems to be a clear-cut distinction between right and wrong motivation, and, indeed, between “us” and “them” – as if the motivation of those of us expressing these concerns is necessarily one hundred percent pure. The more we grow in self-knowledge, the more we discover that our motivation is all too often mixed. It is relatively easy to spot the tainted motivation of those seeking material gain, or even some forms of affirmation. It is considerably more difficult to discern the many more subtle ways that our egos are built up and our passions are fed by things that can appear most “holy.”

With this in mind, I was pleased to come across this response of Abba Poemen recently which also reminds me of the parable of the wheat and the tares. Instead of worrying too much about how mixed all of our motivations are, we should perhaps rather accept them for what they are and pray and work for their purification.

A brother said to Abba Poemen, ‘If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons tarnish these gifts saying it was only done to please men.’ The old man said to him, ‘Even if it is to please men, we must give the brother what he needs.’ He told him the following parable, ‘Two farmers lived in the same town; one of them sowed and reaped a small and poor crop, while the other, who did not even trouble to sow reaped absolutely nothing. If a famine comes upon them, which of the two will find something to live on?’ The brother replied, ‘The one who reaped the small poor crop.’ The old man said to him, ‘So it is for us; we sow a little poor grain, so that we will not die of hunger.’

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975 [1984])  173.

This eight-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

I began by quoting Saint Seraphim of Sarov, and I come back to him now, for he taught that:

However important prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

The question is how we are to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Fathers are all-too-aware both of our capacity for self-deception and of the power of the demons to imitate a virtuous life. However, there was one virtue that they were absolutely clear that the demons could not imitate and that was humility. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we read:

When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The latter struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and he said to him, “What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.” Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, “Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you.”

We can probably all think of examples of false humility, but true humility has something self-authenticating about it. It is one of the most difficult things that there is to learn and I suspect that for most of us it takes at least a lifetime. Yet it lies at the very heart of the life of repentance, of a genuine turning to God, and in the lives of the saints we see how liberating and joyful it can be.

I also started by quoting Saint Seraphim “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” Christian life is not just for ourselves, but is something that has implications for those around us and indeed for the whole cosmos. In the Orthodox Church, the Liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all,” for Saint Paul tells us that God desires all people to be saved. (1 Tim 2:4) For this reason all manner of people are mentioned in the litanies. Likewise, the point of conversion, of the breaking open of our hearts, is that they will expand and be filled with compassion for all. This, and nothing less than this, is what the Gospel calls us to. In the words of Saint Isaac the Syrian:

Once an elder was asked, ‘What is repentance?’ And he replied, ‘Repentance is a contrite and humble heart.’ ‘And what is humility?’ ‘It is a twofold voluntary death to all things.’ ‘And what is a merciful heart?’ ‘It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of the merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.

The work of the heart binds the external members. And it is evident whether a man does the work of the heart with discernment, following the example of the Fathers who have gone before us, if in the presence of external things he is not tied by material profit, despises gluttony, and is entirely free of anger. But if these three are found in a man, namely, the desire for material gain (whether to a greater or lesser degree), quick temper, and submission to gluttony, then, even though he seem to be a peer of the saints of old, know that his laxity in externals is produced by his lack of patience in inward matters; these things, however, are not produced by a discriminating disdain of one’s soul. If this were not so, how could he have despised bodily things and still not have acquired meekness? Discriminating disdain is accompanied by non-attachment, scorn of ease and the love of mankind. If a man readily and joyfully accepts a loss for the sake of God is he inwardly pure. And if he does not look down upon any man because of his defects, in very truth he is free. If a man is not pleased with someone who honours him, nor displeased with someone who dishonours him, he is dead to the world and to this life. The watchfulness of discernment is superior to every kind of discipline accomplished by men of any degree.

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, I, 51, translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. 250.