This post is the second part of a two-part series on denying ourselves and purifying our hearts. Before reading this post, make sure you have first read the first part, which you can find here.
You are probably wondering, "Why a picture of cornbread at the beginning of a post on denial of self and cleansing of the heart?" Here's the story. Immediately after I posted the first part of my reflections of chapter five of Way of the Ascetics, we had dinner. Jennifer had prepared a nice Lenten stew with peas, carrots, potatoes, onions, and fake beef broth. With it, she made some Lenten cornbread. The cornbread was REALLY good! Wouldn't you know it (typical me), right after writing about the need to deny ourselves little things to practice denying ourselves the right to sin, I ended up eating THREE large pieces of cornbread. I was stuffed, and after that, I was humbled. That experience demonstrated to me just how difficult it can be to say no to our stomachs. Was it a sin to eat so much cornbread? I doubt it. But did I miss out on a valuable opportunity to practice self-denial? You bet your boots. Sigh...at least today is a new day...
Having discussed the need to deny ourselves little things, Colliander continues chapter five by anticipating a question that his readers are likely to have: "You are perhaps wondering, is this really necessary? The holy Fathers reply with another question: Do you really think that you can fill a jar with clean water before the old, dirty water has been emptied out? Or do you wish to receive a beloved guest in a room crammed with old trash and junk? No; he who hopes to see the Lord as he is, purifies himself, says the apostle John (I John 3:3)" (14).
Here Colliander has moved from discussing denying oneself to his second theme in this chapter: purifying oneself. The connection between the two is obvious. We must deny ourselves the right to have impure thoughts, to set unclean things before our eyes, and to engage in sinful words or actions (among other things), if we are to purify ourselves. For example, if we (and men are the most guilty of this) allow ourselves to view pornographic or semi-pornographic images, how can we cleanse ourselves from lust? Or, if we allow ourselves to use foul language or to speak evil of others, how can we train ourselves to think pure thoughts or to love our brothers?
Cleansing ourselves is not just a great idea; it is God's command to us. For as Colliander writes, "In this way we are only doing what the Lord Himself commanded us through His holy apostle James, who says: Purify your hearts (4:8). And the apostle Paul instructs us to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (II Corinthians 7:1). For from within, says Christ, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and defile the man (Mark 7:21-23). Therefore He also exhorts the Pharisees: Cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also (Matthew 23:26)" (15).
This cleansing of ourselves is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end: that Christ may dwell in our hearts through his Holy Spirit. Colliander explains it this way: "It is not for our own enjoyment that we furbish and tidy the guest chamber, but in order that the guest may enjoy it. Will he find it pleasant? we ask ourself. Will he stay? Our every thought is for him" (15).
There is so much more in this chapter, which is by far the most challenging section we have looked at thus far (and indeed, in the entire book). I could go on for pages discussing it. But instead, I'll recommend that you read the whole chapter yourself--slowly, prayerfully, and with a pencil in hand. For now, let me close with Colliander's closing exhortation:
"Therefore give yourself no rest, allow yourself no peace until you have slain that part within you that belongs to your carnal nature. Make it your purpose to track down every sign of the bestial within you and persecute it relentlessly. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh (Galatians 5:17).
"But if you are fearful of becoming self-righteous from working for your own salvation, or afraid of being overcome by spiritual pride, examine yourself and observe that the person who is afraid of becoming self-righteous suffers from blindness. For he does not see how self-righteous he is" (16).