“This is the fiercest struggle, the struggle that resists a man unto blood, wherein free will is tested as to the singleness of his love for the virtues….It is here that we manifest our patience, my beloved brethren, our struggle and our zeal. For this is the time of unseen martyrdom…”
What is this struggle that St. Isaac speaks of and how can it be overcome? Is it some dread mysterious experience that only the very holy or only monastics or only spiritually advanced strugglers experience? No, not at all. St. Isaac names two specific areas or perhaps better, arenas, in which this fiercest of struggles attacks believers, all believers, the young and the old, the spiritually advanced and the spiritually negligent, the married and the monastic. These two areas are, first, the struggle to maintain chastity and, second, the struggle with the feeling of abandonment. Let’s take a closer look at these two areas of struggle and St. Isaac’s advice on how not to be overcome by them.
What is chastity and how do we maintain it? Chastity refers to moral purity generally, but specifically to sexual purity. It does not necessarily refer to sexual abstinence. The hymns of the Church refer to Sts. Joachim and Anna as “chaste” even though they were evidently sexual active: they are the parents of our Mother Mary, God’s Birthgiver. Rather, chastity, when it is referring specifically to sexual activity, is referring to properly ordered sexuality. The struggle with chastity is the struggle with disordered passion. Disordered sexual passion is desire that is inappropriate, untimely or perversely directed. And keep in mind that the word “perverse” doesn’t mean “bad,” but rather means “twisted,” diverted from its appropriate use and purpose. So when we speak of perverted sexual desires, we do not mean bad sexual desire, for sexual desire of itself is good as God created it. We are talking about sexual desire wrongly guided or directed, sexual desire that is uncontrolled.
Every human being, in my experience, struggles or has struggled with maintaining chastity. Tolstoy in the beginning of Anna Karenina says, “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think something similar can be said about chastity. We all know, at least approximately, what chastity looks like, but each one of us struggles to maintain it in his or her own way. Our struggles to maintain chastity are intensely personal, as personal as our own story, our childhood experiences and traumas, our secret indulgences and the bad habits of thought and action and the degree to which we have or have not resisted them. Each person struggles to maintain chastity resisting his or her own perversions.
But it’s not that sexual perversions are that unique. There is nothing new under the sun. It is rather that each person experiences his or her struggle uniquely, the particular form of the twisting or perversion he or she suffers from being influenced by a myriad of factors from DNA to social conditioning, from childhood experiences to the availability and kinds of pornography or other models of immorality. All of these influence the exact sorts of perverse desires any one of us may experience and how each of us then struggles to maintain chastity. However, and this is very important, everyone struggles or has struggled to maintain chastity—you are not the only one. Your struggle almost certainly is in secret, the unseen martyrdom as St. Isaac says, but your struggle in this area one of the common human struggles.
The second arena St. Isaac points out as giving us the fiercest spiritual struggle is when we feel abandoned, abandoned by people, but most importantly, abandoned by God. Sometimes this feeling of abandonment is manifest as despondency or depression and is accompanied by a strong urge to give up, to just sit and do nothing, or not to get out of the bed in the morning. However, sometimes the feeling of abandonment manifests itself as an urge to cast off restraint, to give oneself over to wine, women and song; to eat, drink and be merry. And while both of these symptoms or manifestations of the feeling of abandonment are dangerous, the most dangerous in my opinion is when the feeling of abandonment leads to cynicism. A depressed Christian or an unrestrained Christian are both spiritually ill, but they are both usually aware of their sickness and, if they are willing, are relatively easy to help. I say relatively easy because even though both depression and licentiousness can have many possible causes and take a long time to understand and overcome, people who have the spiritual disease of cynicism often do not even realize that they are sick.
A Christian who is cynical may consider him or herself to be in many ways a model Christian, a leader, someone who sees clearly and knows the dark side of every Christian leader, institution or tradition. Cynicism is very difficult to heal because it is very difficult for the cynical Christian to admit that he or she is very sick. But once recognized as a spiritual illness, cynicism can be healed. Keep in mind that the root of cynicism, very often, is the feeling of abandonment. Christians, Orthodox Christians, become cynical often because the people or institutions they had relied on failed them in some serious ways. They then become cynical because God seems to have abandoned them, God seems far away, God does not seem to come to their aid, does not help them in the ways they thought He would. But because they do not want to give up faith completely, because they perhaps cannot give up faith, they cope with their pain and the incongruities of their religious experience through cynicism.
And so the cynical Christian is stuck in a kind of eddy at the side of the River Life. He or she moves in little circles, making what she or he considers to be insightful, cynical comments on the River as it passes by. But the cynic is stuck, not going anywhere out of fear, fear which can be seen only as they are willing to look deeply into themselves. The Christian cynic fears that the shadows he or she has focused on for so long are all that exist, that the Light has abandoned them.
So what do we do then? How do we keep from being overcome by these struggles, these, “fiercest struggles” of the Christian journey, whether they be struggles to maintain chastity (in all of its various and possible forms) or struggles with abandonment issues (again, in any of its various forms or manifestations)? According to St. Isaac, all of these struggles are won or lost through thoughts and habits, and it is the struggle not to give in to our perverse sexual thoughts and the thoughts generated by (and generating) feelings of abandonment that he calls “the unseen martyrdom.” But how do we control our thoughts and habits?
St. Isaac compares vice, be it sexual perversion or the depression, lack of restraint or cynicism that come from feelings of abandonment, to a potted plant or tree that one waters regularly. If you want the tree to die, you have to stop watering it. The more you water it by thinking about it, actively remembering it and doing it (in your mind, with your body or with your words), the stronger the tree becomes. The stronger the tree becomes, the harder it is to kill it. That is, the more you give in to thoughts that lead to sexual perversion, depression, lack of self control or cynicism, the more you associate that vice with yourself, the more you associate that vice with who you really are, who you think you really are. Often when people say to me, “That’s just the way I am,” I am tempted to say back, “No, that just the way you have become.” Actually, I seldom say that because the person I am talking to is not yet at a place where he or she can hear it, but it is true nonetheless.
But just as it is true that we become who we are (or we think we are) by means of accepting certain thoughts as though they were our own, we can also become who we want to be, who we really are, by rejecting thoughts, by resisting images and turning our attention away from thoughts that lead us where we don’t want to go. I cannot become you, nor you me. We can only become ourselves, our best selves, our selves in Christ. And what St. Isaac seems to be saying is that our broken selves, our selves driven to unchaste thoughts and actions, our selves suffering from and trying to cope with feelings of abandonment, our broken selves are not who we have to be. Who we have become is not who we have to be. We can change, but change does not come easily or quickly. Habits of thought and action that have taken years to develop, with also take years to overcome. St. Mary of Egypt, for example, lived a life of wantonness for seventeen years, and so we read in the story of Her life that for Her first seventeen years in the desert, she suffered greatly with a desire to drink wine and to sing lewd songs. It took a while, after she ceased her immoral behaviour, a long while, for the habit of immoral thought to change.
So we too must struggle with thoughts. We too may find ourselves, like St. Mary of Egypt, struggling for days at a time with impure thoughts or with fears that God has rejected us. We too, for example, may be constantly tempted to make cynical comments, to think the worst of others, or to doubt whether it all makes any difference. We may be tempted to stay in bed, not to get out of our chair, not to brush our teeth (someone once told me that, that was how he knew he was struggling with depression: he didn’t want to brush his teeth). However we personally experience this fiercest struggle of the Christian life, this unseen martyrdom, we must each through patience, through long suffering, learn to do battle in our minds, for there and only there will the battle be won.
There are two techniques that I have found helpful in this unseen martyrdom. The first is recommending by St. Isaac in homily 32: “Be on you guard against idleness.” St. Isaac goes on to point out that on the day of judgement, God will not judge us regarding our idleness, regarding what we did not accomplish (contrary to what the cultural theology of our capitalist society teaches us: God is not concerned with what we do or do not accomplish). Rather, God will judge us because by abandoning what He had given us to do to keep our minds active and busy in healthy pursuits, we have become idle thus opening “the door to the demons.” That is, the perverse thoughts and feelings of abandonment are able to enter our mind because we are not keeping our mind busy with what God has given us to do. In the case of the hermit monk (the specific person St. Isaac is addressing) this would be psalmody, prayers and handiwork. In the case of a mother or father, avoiding idleness may have more to do with caring for family members and their needs, along with personal spiritual disciplines.
You see disciplines like saying the Jesus Prayer, cleaning the house, or paying attention to your spouse and children are not only good in themselves, they are also good in that they keep our minds and hearts from being idle, thus limiting the ability of the evil one to plant perverse thoughts in our minds. And even when perverse or depressing thoughts and feelings enter our minds, we do not have to identify with them, we do not have to claim the thoughts or feelings as our own. Rather, we can say to ourselves, “Oh, that old thought again.” Or, “Oh, I know what that yucky feeling is and where it comes from.”
And this leads me to the second helpful technique. It is something I picked up a long time ago from reading the life of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Frances used to refer to his own body as “brother ass.” For example, if he were hungry, he would sometimes say, “brother ass needs to be fed.” He also said things like (and here I don’t remember the exact quotation), we must be gentle with brother ass, but not allow him to lead us. In other words, when our mind or body is experiencing urges or feelings that we do not want, but that we cannot seem to control, it is helpful to give these thoughts or feelings a name and then to deal with the thought or feeling as though you were dealing with someone or something else, not yourself, but someone or something that has sort of hitch hiked a ride on you. If I have a cynical thought, I can say to myself, “Oh, that’s my high school science teacher talking again.” Then I can separate that thought from myself and move on to think more clearly about the matter. St. Paul uses this very technique in his epistles when he talks about the old man and the new man, the old Adam and the new Adam.
When I am able to separate a depressing thought from myself by naming it, I am then more easily able to dismiss the thought—or at least to corral it somewhat, to put it in a box for a while so that I can ask myself more helpful questions such as, “what does Faith say?” or “What is the least I can do?” or “Is this lustful thought really loving?” or “what else could I be doing right now?” Taking the time to ask these questions often opens a door of escape, a door by which I can free myself for a moment from the thoughts that are oppressing me.