To Begin The Spiritual Life and Make Progress

Care for the Inner Self.


"Snow can never emit flame.1

Water can never issue fire.2

A thorn bush can never produce a fig.3

Just so, your heart can never be free from oppressive thoughts, words, and actions until it has purified itself internally. 4

Be eager to walk this path.5

Watch your heart always.6

Constantly7 say the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."8

Be humble. 9

Set your soul in quietness." 10



The Book of Mystical Chapters, Meditations on the Soul's Ascent from the Desert Fathers translated by John Anthony McGuckin, p. 15. Quoted for religious and educational purposes only under 17USC107.

These footnotes obviously do not appear in the original text. However, I suggest the ideas and symbols may well have been in the mind of Hesychios. I include these references to help you sense the potential complexity of his suggestions.
1. Flame as a symbol of God's presence, see Exodus 3:2, cf Heb. 1:7. Tongues of fire, see Acts 2:3. Cf. Ps. 29:7 NAB.
2. Water as dark and empty of God and His presence, Gen. 1:2; as chaos, Matt. 8:24, John 6:18-19. For the destructiveness of water, see Noah's story at Gen. 7.
3. Thorns as worries about wealth, Matt 13:22. Fig as symbol of fruitfulness, Lk 13:6-9. See also Lk 6:44, Matt 7:16, Matt 21:19.
4. Blessed are pure of heart, Matt 5:8.
5. path=spiritual jourmey=way, John 14:6.
6. What comes from the heart makes one unclean, Mark 7:15-23.
7. Cf. Luke 18:1, pray always; Eph. 6:18. See especially 1Ths. 5:17.
8. See, Catholic Catechism sections 435 and 2616.
9. Blessed are the meek, Matt 5:5.
10. Cf. Matt 6:6, and Matt. 5:9, i.e. make peace within yourself. Your interior self is your secret room and sacred space. See, Matt. 6:6 .




The early christian monks who moved to isolated places, such as the desert, to live and pray, would record their insights about spiritual life for the sake of the young people who would come to begin their own spiritual journey. Many of these insights have survived down the centuries, as simple proverbs or paragraphs of wisdom, although they are not commenly known to people today. Typically the young monk would memorize the saying to be able to think about it, i.e. to meditate on it, during the day. (Other examples of this wisdom can be found at Sayings of the Fathers.)
Obviously, snow cannot generate flame so what is he trying to get at? When you look in the fourth sentence you see that his concern is with the heart and internal purity. Therefore the snow must refer to something inside, to an inner state. I suggest that the cold of snow is meant to make us think about spiritual coldness, acedia, hardness of heart, lack of compassion, indifference to the love we are commanded to have to God and people. This makes sense when you think of the fire as a manifestation of God. Thus inner coldness cannot provide a place for God.


For christians, water is a symbol for baptism, but it is also used in the bible as a medium for chaos and turmoil. Creation occured when God's order was imposed on the formless chaos of the waters of the deep. (cf. Gen. 1:2.) The flood of Noah was terribly desctructive. The Red Sea held God's People back from going to Him in the desert until God's power moved aside the water. In the New Testiment the chaos of storms were conquered by Christ's action. Thus water as destructive inner turbulence can act to smother the presence of God within someone. The spiritual person must ask Christ to bring order to the chaos and quell the turbulence that hinders spiritual development.


A thorn bush would not produce a fig, of course, but the deeper suggestion is from the parable of the sower. The seed that is God's Word is sown among thorns but inner anxiety over everyday concerns and the desire for wealth choke off the Word's effect. Thus the person fails in his spiritual journey and does not become fruitful as God intends. The danger to the spiritual journey is inner anxiety over non-spiritual things.


After using symbols to carry his point, in the fourth sentence the author nails down his real concern in plain language. To create within ourselves a sacred space for prayer, and to make spiritual progress, we must be free of thoughts words and actions which oppress, or drive out, God's very presence. The inner purity he urges us to develop means more than freedom from sexual thoughts. It means any thought that will distract us from God, including career, housing, food, income, retirement, entertainment, covetousness and sin.


He counsels us to be eager to walk this path, and his encouragement is necessary. Once one realizes just how much of a change this means and how much energy will be involved it would be easy to become discouraged. It is also easy to argue with oneself that thinking on pleasant thoughts, enjoying memories, desiring comfort or nice things, wanting to succeed in life are all not wrong necessarily. The trouble is they are also not useful, spiritually. (1Cor. 6:12 "'All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are beneficial. 'All things are lawful for me,' but I will not be dominated by anything." NRSV. Cf. 2Tim. 2:20-21.)

To constantly watch one's heart and inner life may seem foreign to many at first, but it is essential. Try to notice what you think about. Then evaluate it. Is it really valuable? You already know how to do this to some extent, if you operate machinery or if you have to concentrate on some task. If a machinist doesn't concentrate on what he is doing he will loose a finger or hand. If a student doesn't concentrate on his lession he will not learn. If we do not concentrate on our inner relationship with God, we will not have a relationship with God. This goes further than the specific thoughts one might have. The teacher specifically says to watch the heart. Although the heart can be viewed as the seat of consciousness it more specifically is the seat of emotion. So, watch what you hope and desire. Is your hope and desire set on God or something other than Him? Are you dejected? Why? Should you not have hope based on God, Rom. 5:5? Doesn't He love you, John 3:16-17; John 16:27; Rom. 8:39 and promise to hear and help those who call on Him, Matt. 7:8; 21:22; Mk 11:24?


Now the teacher tells us exactly how to do this. He gives the explicit instruction of how to accomplish what he recommends. Instead of all the useless or unbeneficial thoughts and feelings we might have, we should pray. We should consciously and deliberately address our thoughts and feelings to God. The specific words of the prayer are also given: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Notice the obvious - if we are doing this we are not doing the other stuff. If we are saying this to God we are not indulging ourselves with daydreams, or worse engaging in false desires or sinful thinking.


How often should we use this prayer? Constantly, he says. It takes practise, but when we learn how to do it always as we are commanded in scripture (1Ths. 5:17) then we leave no place for anything that is not of God. Why these words? First, they are derived from scripture (cf.Mt 9:27, Mk 10:48; Lk 18:13), and second, because we do not deserve God's love, even if it is freely given. When we realize this and then admit we deserve justice, we can only ask for mercy. (See, Prayer without Ceasing, which is from The Way of the Pilgrim.)


This is why Hesychios says be humble. Jesus repeatedly condemns the religious leaders of this day for their lack of humility. Lk 18:9-14.


If we wish peace, especially the essential inner peace needed for the spiritual journey, then we need to emulate Jesus who is gentle and humble of heart. Matthew 11:29. We then put aside all the turbulence and anxiety over non-essential "toys" and cares, such as status. We serve Jesus not mammon.


In summary, our inner self is the sacret place, the secret room, where we meet and talk to God. This inner self, our heart, needs to be purified. Anything there that is not of God, that is sinful or not beneficial is to be banned. By doing this we will remove turmoil and anxiety. To accomplish this we use the ancient prayer of the heart, the Jesus Prayer, constantly. In this way we supplant everything that is not useful and begin to develop the humility and peacefulness needed to become like Jesus, who is gentle and humble of heart. Our cry for mercy brings with it the mercy we seek.


Rev. Roger J. Smith

Copyright 2002. This material is intended for religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended or permitted.



Phil. 4:6-8 "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." NRSV.

Further study of the witings of the Orthodox Fathers can be found in the Philokalia which is available in English. "The Philokalia, a collection of writings by Fathers living approximately between 300 and 1400 A.D., contains exalted theological writings by some thirty Fathers. These writings are essentially instructions to monks and spiritual aspirants in methods by which, to quote the full title of the collection, "the mind is purified, illumined, and made perfect through practical and contemplative moral philosophy." It contains very advanced teachings ranging from advice on the proper control of the breath during prayerful contemplation to detailed instructions for the attainment of freedom from the passions." V. Rev. Chrysostomos, Abbot of the St. Gregory Palamas Monastery in Hayesville, Ohio. Quoted from The Ancient Fathers, an Introduction.


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