To Begin The Spiritual Life
and Make Progress
Care for the Inner
"Snow can never emit
Water can never issue
A thorn bush can never produce a
Just so, your heart can never be
free from oppressive thoughts, words, and actions
until it has purified itself
Be eager to walk this
Watch your heart
Constantly7 say the
prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."8
Set your soul in
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
- 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
- 2. Water as dark and empty of God and His presence, Gen.
1:2; as chaos, Matt.
6:18-19. For the destructiveness of water, see Noah's story at Gen.
- 3. Thorns as worries about wealth, Matt
13:22. Fig as symbol of fruitfulness, Lk
13:6-9. See also Lk
- 4. Blessed are pure of heart, Matt
- 5. path=spiritual jourmey=way, John
- 6. What comes from the heart makes one unclean, Mark
- 7. Cf. Luke
18:1, pray always; Eph.
6:18. See especially 1Ths.
- 8. See, Catholic
Catechism sections 435 and 2616.
- 9. Blessed are the meek,
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.