Guarding the Intellect

As part of my Lenten preparations, I attended a clergy retreat at Olmsted Manor, a retreat center in the midst of the beautiful Allegheny National Forest in Ludlow, PA. This is one of the reflections from my time away at Olmsted.

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Of all the spiritual practices, and spiritual professions, one could choose as part of one’s faith, I think being a hermit one of the most extreme. Coming from a Greek word meaning “person of the desert,”[1] the hermits were ones who, because of their love for Jesus Christ, they left their old life behind and moved into a solitary place like the desert so they could devote themselves fully to seeking God in prayer and meditation.

I just finished an English translation of one of the writings of one of these Desert Fathers of our faith: “On Guarding the Intellect” by St. Isaiah the Solitary. There’s debate about exactly who this Isaiah was (and WHICH Isaiah was he), but we know that this devotional piece was written somewhere in the fourth or fifth century in the Israel/Egypt area of the Middle East.[2]

St. Isaiah begins with a description of one of the emotions human beings find arising within themselves; an anger of the intellect. He outlines the idea that this anger burns against that inside of me or you that is disgusted (and angry) about our flaws, our failures, and especially our sins. “Without [that] anger a man cannot attain purity.” He explains to those who want to follow his example that there are times when this kind of anger will ease up and one might be lulled into thinking that everything is okay now. However, the Christian is most in danger then. He cautions that we (those who might learn something from him) need to stay in an attitude of prayer over our sins, otherwise we will be tricked into believing we have nothing to worry about.

Having a “hatred for sin” is a sign that the anger has steered you in the right direction… away from sin and towards God. Isaiah explains to prospective monks that they “should shut all the gates of [their] soul, that is, the senses, so that [they are] not lured away.”[3] He believes that it is through the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing that we are most easily ensnared… not to fall into some big sin, but usually to simply get distracted from what we were supposed to have been doing.

Watching out for attacks from the enemy of our souls and from the distractions of our senses is not the only prescription St. Isaiah has identified though. In paragraph #13, which are called “chapters” even though they are only a paragraph or two long, the hermit admonishes “Unless a man hates all the activity of this world, he cannot worship God.”[4] It sounds extreme, yet he simply means that to truly worship God and give God the praise and devotion He is worthy of, requires that we be so single-minded, and clearly focused on serving, loving, and following God. Thus everything else in this life pales by comparison.

To continue to be clear minded in our worship of the Lord, he also stresses that each prospective follower “Examine yourself daily in the sight of God” and see what really is in your heart. Thus you can cast away any distractions and be wholehearted in our devotion.[5]

Ultimately, the goal St. Isaiah the Solitary is striving for, as were all of the Desert Fathers, was to become a hesochast, meaning a person who has found the stillness and silence that brings inner peace and tranquility. But this stillness is “Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him.”[6]

Regarding the intensive self-examination for sin, St. Isaiah challenges the potential followers: “If you are afraid of sinners like yourself seeing your sins, how much more should you be afraid of God who notes everything?” [7]

His concluding word of encouragement and hope is blunt: “Whatever you are doing, remember that God sees all your thoughts, and then you will never sin.” [8]

[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hermit

[2] From the introduction to this document found in The Philokalia (vol. 1) edited by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth (Faber & Faber Publishers, London) 1979, p. 21. (This book is referred to as Philokalia hereafter)

[3] Philokalia, p. 23, chapter 7.

[4] Philokalia, p.24, chapter 13.

[5] Philokalia, p.26, chapter 20.

[6] Philokalia, glossary entry “Stillness” on p. 365.

[7] Philokalia, p. 28, chapter 27.

[8] Philokalia, p. 28, chapter 27.

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Filed under Church Leadership, Devotional, Lent, Response

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