Thursday, March 26, 2009

WOA #6: On Eradicating the Desire for Enjoyment

Enter by the narrow gate...because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matt. 6:13-4)

Chapter six of Way of the Ascetics is one of the toughest chapters--perhaps THE toughest--in the entire book. In it, Colliander makes some very strong statements that are tough for the average Christian, especially in the West, to take. Please bear with me as I make an attempt, however feeble, to explain them.

Most of us who live in the industrialized democracies of the West are very pampered people. We rarely if ever go without the things we need. Moreover, we constantly indulge ourselves with luxuries such as fancy cars, expensive vacations, fine foods and drink (usually in too great quantities), $4 cups of coffee, and so on. These things are not evil in themselves, but if not checked and controlled, they can make us soft, both spiritually and physically.

As we saw in chapter three, the Fathers of the Church teach us that if we are to advance in the path toward salvation, we should not constantly pamper ourselves. Instead, we should, in the words of St. Isaac the Syrian, "persecute ourselves." In other words, we should disicipline ourselves by denying ourselves excessive pleasure. Along with this, we must also deny ourselves the right to engage in smaller sins or even non-sinful excesses. As Colliander explains:

"We overcome after a fashion, perhaps, our serious and dangerous vices, but there it stops. The small desires we freely let grow as they will. We neither embezzle or steal, but delight in gossiping; we do not "drink," but consume immoderate quantities of tea and coffee instead. The heart remains quite as full of appetites: the roots are not pulled out and we wander around in the tanglewoods that have sprung up in the soil of our self-pity" (17).

Note his reference to self-pity. Self-pity is a serious obstacle to growth in the spiritual life. Colliander thus urges us to "make an assault on your self-pity, for it is the root of all ill that befalls you....You are compassionate only for yourself and as a result your horizon closes in. Your love is bound up with yourself. Set it free and evil departs from you" (18). The main problem with self-pity is that it is totally focused on SELF. We lose perspective when all we can think about is how OUR needs are not being met.

Returning to the desire for comfort, Colliander urges us to "Suppress your runious weaknesses and your craving for comfort; attack them from every side! Crush your desire for enjoyment; do not give it air to breathe. Be strict with yourself; do not grant your carnal ego the bribes it is restively demanding. For everything gains strength from repetition, but dies if it is not give nourishment" (18).

Finally, Collander gives this advice from the Holy Fathers, including a startling statement: "You must set about rooting out the very desire to have things pleasant, to get on well, to be contented. You must learn to like sadness, poverty, pain, hardship. You must learn to follow privately the Lord's bidding: not to speak empty words, not to adorn yourself, always to obey authority, not to look at a woman with desire, not to be angry and much else" (19, emphasis added).

Learn to like sadness, poverty, pain, hardship? Wow, that's tough! What do the Fathers mean when they say this type of thing? My personal understanding (although I admit I could be wrong) is that we should welcome these things because they drive us toward total and complete dependence on God (or at least they can and should so drive us). Our chief desire in life must be to grow ever closer to God, increasingly taking on his character, rather than (in Colliander's words) "to have things pleasant, to get on well, to be contented" (19). Only then can we walk the path of salvation.

If you, dear readers, understand Colliander's words differently, or would like to add something, please do tell!


Sophocles said...


Thank you so much for this post. It is very timely and timeless.

I know for myself, I have at varying points waged a war against myself, sometimes of intense severity and the results have been mixed(from my perspective-from God's perspective I will not venture to comment).

There have been blessings poured out in me but I have also come to understand some of the grave dangers as I noted in this post last year:


(sorry I don't know how to add hyperlinks in the comment boxes-if anyone does, I am all ears)

I also speak from experience from a condition I have which made it necessary for me to get down to causes and conditions of my soul in order for me to overcome the condition. To be content with merely glossing over my character and identifying outward manifestations of my soul's illness without penetrating deeper would have at best granted me a temporary reprieve from my condition but not any lasting peace and growth.

I have taken over this practice into my Life in Christ and it has been a boon and a source of strength and experience for me.

The most serious danger I encountered is touched on in my above referenced posts but ties into lack of spiritual guidance when I would venture deep into the war against myself which inevitably means a warfare against the spirits of this fallen world and the system they hold sway over of which we all inevitably contribute to and actually love and to this, ascetism employs the medicine of struggle against our love for this world.

The guidance available from many of our pastors is minimal(by this I am not criticizing as I have very little understanding myself)either from lack of knowledge of the human condition as it is dealt with from the Holy Fathers who struggled in Christ for the Gospel to bring to light for us the snares to our salvation or from an understanding of the struggle in purely "psychological" terms with the psychology importing meaning from a Freudian or Jungian structure bereft of the Orthodox understanding of God and Creation.In other words, the forming of an Orthodox Mind is paramount for us to aid one another in our struggle to know Him and be joined to Him.

Orthodoxy in an "American" experience, one in which we homegrown folk are taking the baton from those that handed it to us, and having to develop the roots that go down deep into the soil of Christ, is very new. We are actually pioneers in the Spirit in this land.

It is not a pleasant thing to unmask the things we previously held onto as good because we viewed them as ends onto themselves. I personally have kicked and screamed at times in this process. But God has been more than up to the task of aiding me in this struggle.

Thanks for listening.

Stephanie said...

Thank you for this, Fr. James. This is a great reminder for me during the middle of Lent (when I've gone back to my old ways more than I'd like to admit) that life should be about God and not about us.

James the Thickheaded said...

I tend to go with your sense here, too, but I don't think he means this to be shocking. Lots looks that way initially until re-read and read closely together with direct experience on some level.

Finding oneself with never-ending work that seems to come to no avail... only negatives in a deep recession, struggling under these conditions well past the end of the day and into family time can be a lonely thing, and feeling the pain of physical and emotional exhaustion, as well as the plain old the aches and pains of life and just getting old... it has helped at times to just fall on one's knees and transform the moment into even the briefest of prayers into something that still lingers as sweet.

I think this is more the intent... to accept what is given. It would be a bit on the unhealthy side to seek out suffering and sadness... for their own sake... 'cause I don't think that's the point. There is no virtue in these alone...but ONLY as Archimandrite Zacharias (of Essex) suggests "use the experience to turn it into a point of departure in prayer." Moreover... I should think it is to not enter into sin in order to avoid these conditions - even or especially temporarily.

That's my take... but then... I tend to the once over lightly :)

Fr. James Early said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Sophocles, I appreciate your openness. Thank you also for the links to your articles, which I look forward to reading (and I recommend them to my readers as well).

James the not-very-thickheaded,

Very well spoken. I think you have hit the nail on the head. We should learn to like sadness in the sense that it drives us to our knees. I love the quote from Arch. Zacharias. Thank you.

charlene said...

Father James,
Forgive me for being so late in weighing in on this.
Colliander directs us to deny compassion to OURSELVES, forego self-love. Nowhere does he tell us not to show compassion for OTHERS, or love for OTHERS. He siggests resisting enjpyment, but not JOY. True joy, I think comes from God. Our lives can be devoid of enjoyment of worldly things, yet filled with joy. We can feel true joy when we celebrate the liturgy for example, or during our prayers of thanksgiving, realizing all the blessings God has given us. We can also feel joy in our relationships with others. We feel joy when we direct our love or compassion towards others instead of directing towards ourselves. Do you think my interpretation negates what Colliander is trying to say?

Fr. James Early said...


I think your comment is in full agreement with what Colliander is saying. We can only experience true joy when we break out of our prison of self-centeredness. We find true joy not by pampering ourselves. Most people in the world try this path to joy, and they all find it doesn't work. Rather, we can only find true joy in love and service to God and his creatures, i.e. our neighbor. Well spoken, as usual.

Isabel said...

It is also a struggle for a parent - wanting to give our children everything, and needing to discern whether that is truly good for them (or us). the good news is once you start giving up a few things you thought so very dear (that third biscotti?) you find it was truly nothing. Certainly nothing you (I mean I) really needed, and that tiny "revelation" is a spark that helps light up our relationship with God the Father, if we let it.

JT said...

I am a Christian author writing a book on the Sermon on the Mount and I would like to have your permission to use the picture of the narrow gate in our new book.

Please advise as to any copyright notice or credit you would like me to include.

Thank you very much.

God bless,

Jim Harman