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“That night, following his suggestion, I perused the work of Abba Dorotheos, an early Christian elder whose work had been spiritual nourishment for monks and hermits for centuries. The section that Father Maximos asked me to read was on humility, the sine qua non of the spiritual life and the foundation of “perfect prayer”.
“Humility” I began reading, “is the highest of virtues encompassing all others. Only humility has the power to attract God’s Grace to the human soul”. I turned the pages and read further. “Humility renders the person immune to anger and incapable of making anyone else angry.” According to Abba Dorotheos, if something unpleasant happens to the humble person he always takes full responsibility. “He criticizes no one and refuses to blame others as the cause of whatever problem he may face. For this reason his mind is perfectly at peace.” As I went on reading I lamented the vast gulf that separated my state of mind from Abba Dorotheos’s idea of humility…
There are two types of humility, Abba Dorotheos taught. First, you must always consider others wiser and better than yourself, and second, you must never take credit for whatever achievements you may attain but attribute everything to the Grace of God. This is the perfect form of humility that characterises the saints throughout all generations. “The closer the saints come toward God, the more they see themselves as unworthy and sinful.” I went on reading and came across a passage where Abba Dorotheos clarified this paradoxical claim with an example.
“I remember one time,” Abba Dorotheos wrote, “as we were talking about humility, a nobleman from Gaza overheard us saying that the closer one comes to God, the more sinful he sees himself. ‘How is this possible?’ he asked with puzzlement. ‘Your Lordship,’ I responded, ‘just tell me, how do you consider yourself within your own town?’ ‘I see myself as the most important nobleman,’ he replied. Then I asked him: ‘If you leave your town and go to Caesarea, how would you see yourself?’ ‘I will consider myself as the lowest of the local nobleman,’ he replied. ‘If you leave and go to Antioch, how would you then see yourself?’ I asked him again. ‘ I will see myself like a worthless peasant,’ he replied. I then asked him further: ‘Suppose you move to Constantinople, living next to the king, how would you see yourself?’ ‘I would feel like an absolute pauper,’ he said. ‘That’s exactly how the saints feel,’ I told him. ‘The closer they come to God, the more sinful and worthless they consider themselves to be.'”
I placed the book about Abba Dorotheos next to my bed and held my arms behind my head as I reflected on the extraordinary difficulty of being truly humble, particularly in our ego-absorbed, individualistic age. yet, the saints warn us that neither worldly achievements, nor philosophical virtuosity nor psychic powers can lead us back to God, but only metanoia and humility. “Very, very difficult, very difficult,” I sighed, and turned the light off.”
From Kyriacos Markides, The Mountain of Silence, p211
Father Maximos explains that logismoi (literally “false reasoning” in Greek) are the means by which Satan assaults the hearts and minds of believers. They are thoughts of special power and intensity: they are both a symptom and a manifestation of our distance from God since the Fall.
“When negative logismoi manage to enter your spiritual bloodstream they can affect you in the same way that a needle, full of poison, penetrates you and spreads the deadly substance throughout your body. Your spiritual world becomes contaminated and you are affected on a very deep, fundamental level. Your entire spiritual edifice can be shaken from its very foundation. Sometimes the intensity of a single logismos is so great that the human beings under its spell may feel totally helpless. They may employ all of their powers to defend themselves against such intruders but to no avail.” (Mountain of Silence, 119)
Father Maximos describes the stages of development of the logismos.
1. The Assault
A thought enters our mind in the form of a suggestion urging us to do something.
We begin a dialogue with the logismos. When a logismos urges you to steal, for example, you begin to wonder “Should I or should I not?”. At this stage, although the dialogue is risky and dangerous, there is no accountability on the part of the individual. No sin is committed as yet. The person can examine such a logismos and consider several options without being accountable. But if the person is weak by temperament, then defeat may be the most likely outcome of that exposure to the logismos.
You consent to commit what the logismos urges you to do, in this particular case to steal money. You have made a decision. That is when guilt and accountability start to emerge. the logismos is still confined to thought. There has been no action and the spiritual war is still on the mental level. In such a case, if a person manages to invoke the name of God and to confess, they can avoid the next stage. It is still possible, through God’s providential intervention and love, to liberate oneself from the stage of consent.
The person become hostage to the logismos. The moment the person succumbs, the next time around the logismos returns with greater force. It is much more difficult to resist then.
5. Passion or Obsession
The logismos has become an entrenched reality within the consciousness of the person. The person becomes a captive of obsessive logismoi, leading to ongoing destructive acts to oneself and others.
They may be healed through the Grace of the Holy Spirit
I’ve spent about seven years in the desert, during which time I have read an awful lot of depressing literature written by nihilists and misogynists, a lot of psychology and an equal amount of philosophy. The only Christian literature I read during that time was a few years ago when I devoured almost everything that Richard Holloway had written, including a very challenging book on forgiveness that took up Derrida’s premise that forgiveness really only starts when you forgive the unforgiveable. So, it was surprising to me to find that I was now interested in reading about Orthodox spirituality. It was coincidental that I had also started working alongside a Greek Orthodox woman with whom I had become friendly.
I have really enjoyed reading two books by the American sociologist, Kyriacos Markides, about Othodox spirituality. Markides is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine, a position which leaves him plenty of time in long holidays and sabbatical terms to travel to Greece and Cyprus and to England to research the monastic tradition of the Orthodox church.
I read first the Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality, 2001, and then Fruits of the Desert. The first book is an account of many conversations Markides had on Mount Athos with a young charismatic monk called Father Maximos. The device of reporting conversations has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the author appears not to colour the information that the monk provides. He is simply reporting the monk’s words, not commenting on them, and thus leaves the reader to make up his or her own mind. However, the device of reporting the monk’s words without comment leaves the reader with only a vague idea of the monk’s character. Since the conversations are all question and answer sessions on Orthodox spirituality and do not concern other aspects of life, we only know what the monk believes about his faith, not how he deals with more mundane matters. We are occasionally told that the monk laughs or smiles ironically, but that is all. The monk, for all his charisma, appears more like a vehicle, a conduit through which to showcase Orthodox spirituality.
Another more fundamental objection is that the accounts ignores the feminine experience of God. The monk is male and has no intimate relationship with a female other than his mother, and the interviewer is male, and no females are allowed on Mount Athos. The author does not deal with the absence of the feminine – though we are left knowing that his wife would have a great deal to say on the subject – and we have to wait until a short interlude in the second book where he interviews the British Orthodox leader Kallistos Ware. I found this frustrating. I had lots of questions stacking up to be answered and they remained unanswered at the end of the book.
By the time of the second book the monk has been moved (reluctantly) from Mount Athos back to his home country of Cyprus. He is quickly elected Archibishop and has a rude awakening from the peace and contemplation of his monastic existence to becoming a public, semi-political figure on a divided island. Once again the format is a series of conversations with the now-Archbishop and the author, and sometimes the author’s friends. These conversations are more worldly. At least with his friends, the author touches on the political situation in Cyprus and, with Kallistos Ware, he discusses the role of women in the church and ecumenicalism.
“True faith means I live with God, I am one with God. I have come to know God and therefore I know He truly Is. God lives inside me and is victorious over death and I move forward with God. The entire methodology of the authentic Christian mystical tradition as articulated by the saints is to reach that stage where we become conscious of the reality of God within ourselves. Until we reach that point we simply remain stranded within the domain of ideas and not within the essence of Christian spirituality which is the direct communion with God.”