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!