WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT LOVE?
by Monk Alexander
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all
mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so
that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.
(I Cor. 13:2)
"High in the sky, an eagle glides upon the broad expanse of his wings, a lord over the azure sea… How far is he above the earth! How petty to him must seem all earthly joys and griefs that occupy and perplex mankind! Over him is the free life-giving sun, under him the currents of purest air, and he, with every bold stroke of his wings, soars higher, getting closer to the never-fading sun.
But why is he alone? Why is everyone not soaring like that eagle in the sky? Others are creeping over the ground, tossing restlessly in the noose of vices and delusions, petty feelings and miserable desires, instead of dashing like an arrow towards the boundless freedom of the spirit, to the eternal Sun of Justice…
Is it because most of us are by nature cowardly slaves, and people of spiritual freedom are but rare?
'Happiness! I want happiness!' a modern man is shouting. During his whole life, he is chasing ghosts of happiness and dies unsatisfied, with a bitter grin on his face.
But the people we hear in this book are different. They did not seek earthly happiness. The thirst for different, eternal happiness burnt their souls, moving them to most wondrous and arduous deeds …
Whenever life upsets us and becomes especially hard for us, may the images and thoughts of these people rise before us and call us to follow their trodden paths, — the people, who laughed at the happiness of this world and who rejoiced at future joys on this earth."
1. Earthly love
Firstly, we would like to tell the reader about the "natural" love and its consequences, secondly, reveal the genuine beauty of love and show the way that leads to it. We find this teaching in the Gospel and in the writings of the Holy Fathers.
We offer this book not only to those who call themselves Christians, but to lay people (the general readership) as well, although this is somewhat dangerous. The Holy Fathers say: "He, who offers people high teaching before time, will find them unable to follow it even in due time, thus making the teaching forever useless." This means that high teaching should not be revealed before time, for it can turn to be pernicious for the traditional system of values and therefore unintelligible and hastily rejected. However, if we do not see the highest ideal, we will get content with what we have, and this might turn into an even worse tragedy.
Whatever is natural for a sinner is unnatural for a righteous man. That is why a sinner needs a certain transition stage on his way to the highest and genuine beauty. It is impossible to jump to the top of the ladder with one jump - from the worst to the best. We occupy now a somewhat medial stage of development - between sin and holiness, thus we can understand only what is "below" us. Nevertheless, we should make attempts to imagine the state of holiness at least vaguely, for if this miracle does befall us, we will not be content with what we are, but endeavor to move upwards, to heavens and all heavenly. If we do compare the two, everything, which filled our lives before, will collapse at once. We will come to understand that our life is no life at all, but some kind of dead existence. We will desire to rise from the dead and start a real life.
All this is not easy. Especially for people consumed by various desires and passions of this world. It is so hard that the Holy Fathers compared it to death and rebirth. But this is extremely necessary.
At first, we should at least keep thinking about that. If we are content with everything and do not want to take any efforts, even God Himself will not be able to help us, for He can not do anything without our volition. To have a desire to move towards heaven and start living like saints do, it is necessary to reduce all hindering and opposing forces.
The only force tearing us from God is self-will. In order to make the conquest of our corrupted will easier, we must block or shut the source that feeds it. This source is our body, flesh. It is indeed flesh that, according to Saint Paul, feeds "carnal mind" (ROM. 8:7). We know the desires of flesh. They are contrary to the desires of the spirit. To liberate our eyes from this shroud of flesh, which prevents us from seeing the life of spirit and from desiring what is befitting to our spiritual nature, we must put ourselves into the conditions of forced abstinence. It is difficult for us, being aware of ourselves as flesh, to give consent to this "suicide" for the sake of spirit, which we can not feel. We are created as heavenly dwellers; flesh and blood will not inherit the Heavenly Kingdom. Flesh will be our enemy and murderer until we subdue it to the spirit. To do this, we must at least become aware that it lives in us.
The only door to ourselves, to our soul and spirit is abstinence and fasting. "Fasting opens doors to battle", say the Holy Fathers. With the fast, we acquire a completely different attitude to the world, the very nature of our problems changes, for they enter the spiritual sphere. Then we will be able to understand correctly and digest everything that follows below.
We will speak of carnal love from the viewpoint of a chaste person, i.e. Christian. The Holy Fathers say that even natural needs of the body are alien to the spirit, let alone over-indulgence. Therefore, when a spiritual person hears of love or falling in love, he certainly thinks of something high and holy. Even if he thinks of something natural (e.g. food, sleep and other physiological needs), he treats it with awe. For him, the world, the man and the body is a Divine mystery. Spiritual people cannot treat mysteries but with awe. A carnal man has a completely different attitude to his body — it is superficial, secularized, that of a consumer. The only love that exists for him is bodily, for it is easily accessible and simple. Does the spiritual man have the right to tell the carnal man that the image of love of the latter is one-sided and vulgar, that he is psychologically sick? It is not hard to foresee the response. At best, that person would answer in bewilderment: "But this is life". Yes, this is life for him, this is its main content. Whereas spiritual life and spiritual love is something nebulous and almost unreal. If a person in such condition loses the ability to "love" and rejects the carnal love (for example, goes to a monastery), this can eventually bring him to despair. His soul is empty, and he has nothing to live on. Eventually, he loses both earthly and heavenly bounties, as commented by Saint Macarius the Great: "This man is the most miserable of all; he is deprived of earthly riches, nor he enjoys the Divine ones."
If chastity is not easy and not natural for a man, as it is for a child, this means that he is not yet ready for the genuine love after the image of the Heavenly Kingdom, i.e. through the rejection of his nature. Otherwise, his forced "holiness" will end in a defeat of the spirit, not in the victory over the flesh.
Nurturing Our Desires
Not everything comes at once. Desires have to be nurtured and cultivated. This is a hard task, this is an art that must be learned. It seems easy to list everything we need from life, but time goes, and our desires and ideas of life change. Yet time was spent for them, and it turns out that we have wasted the power of love for unnecessary things, for something that is already gone, for our passions and affections.
If body burns with passions for too long, then the soul burns together with the body. The man is left with nothing. This is how emptiness and insensitivity to God develops. When the soul wished for something alien to its spiritual nature, it did not get what could make it indeed happy. Eventually, carnal desires and carnal love end in despair, which signifies the beginning of infernal torments. Foreseeing our future is not hard, for we have thousands of examples before us.
The more we deceive ourselves, the less is the desire of a spiritual effort of fulfilling the commandment to love God with all one's heart. Here a delay indeed means death. We must overcome ourselves today, right now, and afterwards never slacken in the effort to change for the better. Let it be a simple auto-suggestion in the beginning. But God, seeing our zeal and desire, will at some point substitute this falseness for the true and eternal. "God wants from us only perfect determination, He Himself gives us strength and grants victories", say the Holy Fathers. The only thing, which is required from us, is not to ascribe to ourselves anything that belongs to God. "Any giving of a bounty, any perfect gift comes from God", not from us. What God gives us will pass on to eternity, and all our earthly affections and passions will burn in eternal fire in our soul as tares if we do not wish to reject them.
We must show God our constancy and loyalty in fulfilling our moral duty. For, according to the teachings of the Holy Fathers, "God's help is granted only to the loyal." Love based on duty is certainly no love either. Duty, however, forces us to make an effort in order to achieve the genuine love. The sense of duty implies an effort of will "You shall love …", for only "the violent take it [the Kingdom of Heaven] by force", as Christ says (MT. 11:12). But we have to force ourselves without any need, without implication of any profit, i.e. freely. Love through need lasts no longer than the need itself, that is why the Holy Fathers say: "He, who becomes better under the influence of a disease or fear of death, will soon return to his misery" (i.e. his previous condition). He, who loves God, is cured.
Need is a desire and thirst for its fulfillment. Here our will is full of egotism, for it is directed inward, not outward. Egotism - the thirst for possessing another person (people) - sometimes increases so much that it turns into real theomachy and pushes the man to crime, including even murder of a rival. These motives are present even in the initial stages of "love". Here is a poetic example to illustrate this statement:
O Lord, take me instead of him,
But leave him on the earth.
I am a careless being,
Send me to hell. […]
I pray to Thee, O Lord, pray with tears,
Stop the flow of my blood
At least for the sake of my love for him,
My love, which is stronger than the love for Thee.
And what is the cost of such a "beautiful" feeling as jealousy, that is the desire to command the loved one as your own thing? How much suffering it brings to couples before the marriage and after it! It is with this purpose that the folk saying exists: "Wedlock is love's grave", if there was no genuine love before wedlock. And it is the same wild egotism elevated to a cult that drives many mothers, "living their life for the sake of the child", insane, if they happen to lose their children. Do we encounter such "podvigi of self-denial" amongst Christians? No. They do not have love for the person without love for God.
"Humanism" of a man without God is utopian. It is appropriate only for solving social problems, not personal. But social problems do start in concrete people. Christ did not deliver social sermons, He addressed everyone individually: "you" shall turn the other cheek also, not the society, "you" shall not look at a woman to lust for her. Love for a person must be tested by love for God, because it is born from the love for God, not vice versa. Adoration with all one's heart should be directed only to God, any passion or desire without God is an attempt to substitute Him for our own idol. As long as one passionate desire exists, we should be expecting the second, the third one — with no end. This is eternal slavery. Love for someone's desires and feelings is more than a vice for a Christian — it is idolatry. We love not a person, that is, not God in this person, but an impression or feeling, which this person arouses. It means that we love ourselves, turning the ability to love into the cult of self-adoration, thus bearing likeness to demons. Eventually, this egotism turns into pride, which crushes the very ability to love. This brings despair and a desire to destroy oneself.
However, everything starts with the forbidden fruit of "Paradise", with the betrayal of obedience to God. Adam and Eve did not want to fulfill the commandment to love God with all their heart; they wanted to be self-sufficient, like God, and imagined they do not owe Him anything. They wanted to be free from God. The Lord could not create them equal to Himself, however he satisfied their desire by giving them a material body as well as five senses - all this instead of the sole spiritual feeling that wished sole God. Thus, they were able to enjoy communion not only and not as much with God, but rather with themselves and their own feelings.
This was a revolt of nature that lived for itself, a revolt against the personality that lived for God. Adam and Eve identified themselves with nature, not with spirit; they have hidden from God inside themselves and lost the only source of life and food - God. This, however, was merely an illusion, a lie, although a conscious lie, for they wanted to tell a lie to themselves. This self-deception turned into our nature, into the instinct of self-preservation. This is how the beginning of life was laid — not after God's image, i.e. by completely sacrificing and destroying oneself for the sake of love for God — but after the image of the father of deception, devil. Destroying themselves for God in their own name, they were not afraid of being destroyed, for they knew that non-being does not exist and did not fear the words "ye shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). And now, unwilling to die for ourselves voluntarily, we die everyday involuntarily, getting closer to the forced and final breakup with ourselves, with the illusion of our "godless" existence.
These are the consequences of a warped, egotistic love. It is based on voluptuousness, which desires to have complete happiness within oneself. Adam's sin consisted in the fact that he was satiated with paradise happiness and, rejecting it, wished for something higher, of his own. He switched from the enjoyments of mind and grace to sensual enjoyments, and, as a result, became a slave of his nature, of himself. The mind has to gain back the rule over the nature, in order to be free from enjoyments and suffering and to live like God, Whose way of being is self-sacrificing love.
2. Heavenly Love
"Fear of torment is the way of a slave, desire of reward
in the heavenly kingdom is the way of a hireling,
but God's way is that of a son," through love.
Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain
Being convinced that earthly love does not exist at all and that it should be named differently, we will now attempt at least to outline what is genuine, heavenly love.
As we know, everything is learned through comparison. Thus, a comparison will help us to detect discrepancies and correct errors.
What is in fact heavenly, eternal love? The Sanskrit word lubha means "desire". For many, a "desired one" and a "loved one" would be identical concepts. But actually, there is nothing elevated in desire. You can desire both good and evil with equal power. Desire and willingness quickly turn into unwillingness, attraction into repulsion. Love becomes holy when it turns from desire into compassion, when our will is directed not inward, but outward. It happens when we do not love our desire, but reject it for the sake of someone's well-being. This is the novelty of Christ's commandment of love (John 13:34). Transformation of will from desire into compassion is a task within everyone's power. Lust, whose father is the devil (JOHN 8:44), must be exchanged for love. Only then our attitude to the world and to ourselves will change. Then we, as newly born, will discover a new world, discover ourselves and God in ourselves and in all.
The saints provide miraculous examples of saintly love. As soon as a man has cut himself from the gravity of the world, the world seeks after him. Everyone who is sick in heart and miserable seeks after holiness, they depart from the holy man comforted. He gives something of what everyone is in great need. Any creature needs affection and love and feels instinctively where they have to be sought.
Another example is a kind and humble mother. She is in constant motion from sunrise till sunset — teaching, feeding, playing, giving joy to all. She is able to attend to everyone, everything is easy for her, for things you love are always easy. Where does such power come from? From the holy love, the source of inexhaustible. Compassion has ousted desire in her and bore peace and joy.
The Lord commanded not only to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, but to love him as thyself. Perhaps, the hungry beggar is hungrier at heart, than at stomach. He might be dying of loneliness, he feels lost in this world of humans, as if he were in a desert, he is dying of desertion in his life. What happens if you all of a sudden find yourself forgotten by everyone, that no one is willing to deal with your self, and not with what you own. There is not a single genuinely loving or kindred soul around. No place to go, to get warm, everyone is cold and in fact a stranger. Everyone has forgotten that we are brothers.
The soul of some diva chased by suitors may experience a real inferno of anguish and grief, and no one will notice that. Such examples are numerous. These are real beggars, whose soul is crying in the wilderness of the world and yearns with thirst of love. What is it asking for? The same genuine love, sympathy of the heart, some kindred compassion. Some day people might understand that not power or beauty constitute life and soul of this world, but love. We do not understand this, because we have no love.
Alas, "everything beautiful is as hard as it is rare", says one philosopher. However, it is hard only for those who do not know to whom to subdue - to Christ or to the world, to themselves or their desires. But nothing is impossible for those who have God's help. Only the beginning is hard - it is full of hesitation and making choice - submission to Christ and freedom in Christ or one's own tyranny. Dostoyevesky's Grand Inquisitor tells Christ: "Is it not better to give them quiet freedom, happiness of feeble creatures, who are allowed to sin? And they will die, die out quietly in Your name, for if there still were something in that world, it would be definitely not for anyone like them." Yes, many millions of us have no power to reject the material bread for the sake of spiritual one. We receive bread, but give away freedom; we try to love God and light up candles for Him, for we are afraid of eternal tortures — we want to buy the Heavenly Kingdom sacrificing something unimportant or unnecessary. This deal of 'sale and purchase' annihilates not only freedom, but also love, leaving us tyranny in place of freedom, and miserable passions and affections in place of love.
However, despite our servile state, we are fully responsible for the lack of genuine love. We are free to turn our mind and heart away from God, which means we are also free to turn them back to Him. We are not free from the conditions of life, but are free to occupy a certain standing towards them. No defect of psyche liberates us from responsibility for our choice, for we are always able to watch ourselves and repent what we are not able to rectify.
We can despise our own or someone other's sin, but love a sinner, for any sinner, as well as ourselves, "conceal" Christ. The Holy Fathers say: "He who does not love a man, for whom Christ died, - may he even shed his blood for Christ, he will not succeed in anything." Our inner man is not the same as our feelings, sins, and passions. They belong to us, but this is not our essence. Our "I" is a particle of Divine self-consciousness. He created us for Himself and His love is reflected in everyone of us. That is why our heart is restless until it finds God and gains rest in Divine love.
God represents the highest value, therefore he must be loved more than anything in the world. God is followed by the value of every persona, irreplaceable and one of its kind. Then follow non-personal values - kindness, beauty, etc. If this system of values and subordination within it fail, then comes inner discord and disharmony, characteristic of any self-lover.
Love is an indestructible need in human life. It is sought by any cost, even on impersonal, sensual level. Christians, however, seek love not for the sake of love or a pleasant feeling; they seek to love Christ for the sake of Himself. Their love is not self-sufficient. They strive for the very Source of Love, skipping or rejecting all transition stages that can slow down the ascension. They conquer sensual love by love for God. "Love of the soul is one thing, the Holy Fathers say, but the love of the Holy Spirit is a completely different matter."
We must direct all the passionate power of our soul to God, as soon as possible, so that it would not be wasted for trifles. Then He will purify the dark and passionate side of our soul and grant different love, which will pass with us on to eternity - love pure, clear, and all-embracing. If love has no goal, the ability to love degenerates into a passion or, as it is more acceptable to call it, sexuality. Our soul seeks the fullness of unity, which it can achieve only in God. And sin is nothing else but non-fulfillment of this requirement of love.
Unfortunately, most of us are cowardly slaves. We are afraid to lose what we have. We are afraid to deny the natural love not to be left without anything. Our "protective callousness" might be appropriate for natural love, but not for God. We are afraid to love, lest our love be hurt by someone's indifference, lest this turn into the case of unhappy, unrequited love. Therefore we put forward conditions on which we agree to have love. Eventually, we love not the person, not his Divine essence, but these external conditions — features of character, looks, etc. Such love certainly remains unrequited, but this also means that we have no love. Love for Christ, Whom we must see in the person, is getting down to the essence of the beloved. This is the only way of knowing another being. We, however, ignore this essence and seek after what the beloved one possesses, what we can take into our own possession and use in our own interest. Mostly, this is the seeking of pleasure, comfort for the soul, overcoming loneliness, etc. Thus, the natural love becomes a rival of the genuine, heavenly love.
What on earth do people undertake in order to justify this self-deception! In most cases, they try not to think of that, so that they could live and love the way they want. The believers sometimes deceive themselves differently. They have no love for their neighbor, but set themselves at variance against their own household (Mt. 10:35-37), thinking they do it out of love for God. But Gospel's "despisal" is not a sinful human emotion, but a perfect love, absolute self-denial, again for the sake of love and attainment of love. "Love not the world" (I John 2:15) means: Do not love anything that distances us from the love for God. For God so loved the world that He died for it on the cross, and if Christians treat people with suspicion and ill-disposition, it is their personal decline and degeneration.
If we have no Christian love, it is better not to call ourselves Christians, "For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you" (Rom. 2:24) and thus we serve as a temptation for other people. It is only by love that "all men know that ye are My disciples" (JOHN 13:35). The Holy Fathers say: "There is no other virtue than refusing to bear contempt, therefore we must respect shortcomings of the others." "Despise sin" means to love the sinner and weep for his correction.
Diabolical, consumer's love for the world, for ourselves and our neighbor must cede to the Divine love — this is the only way to restore peace with God and with ourselves, i.e. with our genuine personality, not the personality which we identify ourselves with. However, reconciliation and love for ourselves is possible only after we have felt Christ in our heart, otherwise we are in for a self-deception, as if after a psychiatric session, which is prelest', or insanity as if after taking drugs that unleash the consciousness.
We are weak to face the truth about ourselves - the truth that a dark, hostile power is living in our heart instead of Christ. If this revelation comes before time, the person is overcome with terror and despair, for he sees no possibility to rescue from himself by his own power. Then he tries to find a refuge — either in his own fantasies (schizophrenia) or in religion. To prevent an untimely dissension with ourselves, we must forget about our own problems and goals as soon as possible and start living a "life of stranger". It is only through the experience of this love that a person can become himself. He will reach reconciliation with himself, with God and the world, if he gives God and people the most precious he has — freedom. For this is the law of love, the Law of the Universe — the man keeps and gains only what he gives away. As one poet put it: "Whatever you give is yours, whatever you conceal is lost forever."
The reason for Christ's suffering was not giving us a chance to tremble over our happiness and imaginary well-being. Dostoyevsky said: "Final development of the personality, of one's "I" is denial of self, giving one's self wholly and undividedly to each and everyone. This is the greatest happiness, this is Christ's Paradise." Any experience of love is life in another and through others (Church). This is the task and goal of our life. Love is denial of self, giving of self, liberation from one's self. Only thus, dying for ourselves everyday, we can resurrect for ourselves and God in ourselves. Until we stop our 'independent' existence, we can never start life as it befits a man - after God's image. And the first step on this path is to become ourselves, which means to depart from the sinful self to the actual, spiritual self.
Having died for ourselves, we must mourn over my own "dead" and start to mourn for others and together with others. During this labor, spiritual loneliness is overcome, an all-idealizing love for all creation awakens. Although we would trade in the desired things for real in this condition, this does bring us closer to the genuine reality in ourselves, as well as in our neighbor, for the essence of our "I", as mentioned before, is ecumenical, Divine love.
If another person does not become higher and worthier in my own eyes than myself, I will not pass him by or block myself from his joy or grief with my mask and give all my strength to God and people. It is very important to understand that we are responsible not only for ourselves, but also for the others, for humankind is one family that reflects God's image. The more I pray for the others or grant them practical help, the more I receive myself, for it is impossible to receive without giving. If I fail to see myself in another person and love him as myself, I will forever remain in my shell and my personality will not be revealed, but will perish together with this shell, i.e. body. "How ever much we love God, so much closer we become to our neighbor in love", as the Holy Fathers teach us. Here is the feature of genuine love: ""When someone weeps over shortcomings of one's neighbor or rejoices at his spiritual gifts, then we learn that he has genuine love."
Sometimes, it is necessary to distance ourselves from people in order to acquire love for them. To have something to give, we must first collect it in our soul, ask God for help. Only being convinced in his powerlessness to change himself or his neighbor, does a man start to ask God for help. Not everything depends on ourselves, and we have no power to change another person. Otherwise, we reach a dead-end, where one unconquerable will tries to conquer the other unconquerable will. We must liberate ourselves from concerns about anything that lies beyond human capabilities. We need different power to change ourselves or another person - that of God. Christ will start working in us, if He occupies the most important place in our lives. We have to make a determined step towards God and stop tormenting ourselves. We must forget our endless problems and thank God for what we already have. Life cannot be fit into our own idea about it, otherwise this will entail a ruin of our personal hopes. To get rid of self-deception in the very beginning, we should get down to the "root", to the real motives of our behaviour.
Our task is to learn to love by imitating Christ's love. This is not easy. Some try to change their consciousness by reading books, but no work of mind can make up for the virtual experience of love. It is impossible to teach love from a book. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery puts it, "The human mind is not worth anything unless it is a servant of love." And only love has access to the source of being, God.
Love places everything where it belongs. At first, it teaches us to discern the good self from the evil self and let others be the way they are. Thus, we will not adjust our impressions of them to our own liking - we will love them, not our impression of them. Then we will have the right attitude to any sinful provocation, coming from our inside or from outside, from the others. What can passions do to me if I do not pay attention to them, if I despise them? Or words if I do not take them to my heart? And if another person is going to afflict pain on me, I will be able to accept it. This then will be not so much pain, but life happiness according to the laws of love. But before we have matured enough to reach this stage, we should avoid anything we cannot cope with. The Holy Fathers say: "May each person dedicate himself to the ascetic battle only to the degree of his soulful love for God."
We should not wait for the moment when we finally acquire love. Looking forward alone will not do, we need to act. We must drive away from our soul and thoughts anything that opposes love — rancour, offence, despondency — as soon and mercilessly as possible. We should not savour our sufferings and details of our misfortune (self-pity, reproach, etc.) too long. These burdens cause overstrain, we can get stuck and suffocate in the swamps of sad thoughts. Saint Ephraim the Syrian says: "You will smell the stench of a dung-heap, as long as you stand beside it." Everything requires strict measurement and weighing.
Let us not expect to much from life and rage about that it does not get any better. Let us rejoice instead at what the present day brings us. Then we will not burden ourselves with solving our future problems, for, as Christ teaches, "Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof" (Mt. 6:34). In medical terms, the preoccupation with something that has not yet taken place is called a 'dark perspective disorder'. Christ warns us against this disorder by proclaiming to live in the present day.
It is necessary to turn from the past and cast off thoughts about the future in order to discover the unlimited potential of the present day. This day is unique, for it will never be repeated again. It comprises the whole experience of my previous life and all the potential for the future. It belongs to me and I can do whatever I want with it. I can fill it with vain trouble and anxiety, or I can dedicate it to God.
Today is the day God has given me. If I could realize what kind of gift it is to me, I would use every moment of it to make my life brighter and more meaningful spiritually. I would not look back to the past in disappointment, would not reflect anxiously about the future. I would try to live it the best I could. I would notice everything interesting and divine in my life: the charm of children, nature and other visible miracles that surround me.
Some can, certainly, fail to see the beauty of creation or see its fading and dying out, but this happens only to those who lost God's grace. Such a person is unable to see the beauty of the world in due way, he does not wonder at anything, nothing touches him, his heart is not thrilled. Thirst for beauty, thirst for life is inherent in every living thing, but it is conscious only in man. Today, by dying consciously for all that has nothing in common with the Divine life, we can be born into a new life in God, the name of which is love.
Christ is the best of all lovers, for He loved us first (1 John 4:10). "And when the soul answers the call of the loved one, it realizes that it is in love with the inaccessible. This hurts it with despair, for it thinks that its desire for fullness will last eternally. But now the shroud of sorrow is taken off and the soul sees that advance in search and perfection constitute enjoyment, because every time the desire is fulfilled, a new desire for something even higher is engendered. Then the soul, overcome with even more ardent desire, reveals the desire of the heart to the beloved, saying that it is wounded with an arrow of God, it is mortally wounded with love."
Christ's love gets crucified by this world, for neither does the world believe in it, nor accept it. It believes only in power and success and does not leave man the right for failure and weakness. Therefore, to really love people means to get crucified together with Christ. Many divert from the Way of the Cross of Christ's love to other paths, but there is no other way, as there is no other God. "Heavenly love on earth has no guard against sufferings, keeping oneself untouched by them is possible only in hell", for infernal torture is deprived of love. What is there to do? — "Follow the path of trial and harden your spirit in struggle. Know that only sufferings will befall you in exchange for love." Genuine love weeps with those who weep and suffers with those who suffer. "True religion entered the world through the great suffering of God."
We too suffer often, however, not through love, but through our stupidity and imperfection. We are like capricious children - our mother puts food in front of us, but we violently push it way and get terribly upset at her. Love is a way of punishment for the obstinate and disobedient. A premature knowledge of God's love would only increase our torture. God's love is perceived as torment by those who rejected it, that is why the Holy Fathers say that "Infernal fire is the fire of love", it is the inability to respond to God's love. "There, it will be a continuation of what the soul was in here", teach the Holy Fathers. If we have not acquired the experience of love and prayer, we are in for despair, or, as the Holy Fathers say, eternal "remorse". The Lord assigned hell (the place deprived of light) for the devil and all like devil out of His mercy, for Paradise would be absolutely unbearable for sinners.
There are two ways to Heaven and Christ's love. One passes through practical virtues. It is more accessible, but it is also longer. The second one is through "noetic work", prayer. Actually, the first and the second ways are essentially one. In both instances, God's love is born in prayer when the mind is "cramped" inside the heart by the power from the visitation of the Divine grace. Then the man, as if awakened from sleep, starts looking at the world with new eyes; he sees a completely different world both inside and outside himself, he trembles with awe, anticipating the encounter with God. This "mystical" fear is necessary for everyone who started the way of love, for, as the Holy Fathers teach, "No one can love God without having fear of Him first" (this should be distinguished from the animal fear that provides access to the evil one). Gradually, fear of God, conjugated with prayer and purification of the heart from passions, turns into love. This is how the entrance into the living eternity is accomplished, where perfection in love has no limits.
3. The Way to Love
He who attains love can not fall.
Saint Macarius the Great
Among many ways leading to God, there is one that is shortest - "noetic work", or Jesus prayer. Numerous volumes are written about it, but we will confine ourselves to some short reflections to receive at least a vague idea.
We know that our thought is material. It can be transferred to another person at a distance; it can hurt the soul; thoughts cause changes in chemical composition of the blood; diseases come and go depending upon thoughts. Our thoughts get materialised in the soul and form some kind of second world, in which we live and with which we identify ourselves. The Holy Fathers call it "the fleshly heart", whose thickness we must pierce in order to get to our real self, genuine "I".
The core, the essence of our soul is a "noetic feeling", contact with which, as the Holy Fathers teach, equals the contact with the Holy Spirit. When we frequently repeat Jesus' name in thought, first it hides in that thickness of the heart as well, as all our fantasies, but gradually, getting stronger from long exercise, pierces the heart and finds the door in it - the inner entrance into Christ's house. "Search is done by reason, but contact is done by love", say the Holy Fathers.
We need to focus on this distance of the heart, which separates us from God and from ourselves, in order to succeed in overcoming it. After the Fall, evil was not made eternal, but was ousted into the temporal, sensual, and material domain to be corrected and eventually annihilated. We get a life on earth to make our choice, for, with the man's consent, evil has the right to remain forever with its bearer.
Evil is not the nature itself, but the manner of its application, it is our attitude and our free choice. Saint Macarius the Great said: "At the moment of the Fall, the serpent, upon entering, made himself the master of the house; he exists at the soul as the second soul." Thus, the heart split into two kinds of life — the life of light and the life of darkness. These are two closed systems, of good and evil. It might not be wrong if we say that they even exist in different spacial dimensions, for evil is not in the heart's depth, but at its periphery.
Evil has ghostly, illusory existence. God did not create evil, therefore evil does not exist as a separate substance. Evil, as we mentioned, is a direction of our will, which can use in the evil way anything it desires. We can materialise evil in our soul and in the world, but the final result of this is always "nothing". Recall the words of Apostle Paul: If I "have not love, I am become as sounding brass" (1 COR. 13:1).
Our fantasies and thoughts get materialised, imprinted and stored in the heart (the Holy Fathers say that our deeds will be written on the "skin"). If these images of the heart turn out to be good, the person will be justified, if evil, he will be condemned. Therefore, the Holy Fathers say that there are no "small" or "great" sins. Sin is what changes the centre of our action, the direction of our thoughts and will. And will is nothing else but thought. "Passions are not born without soaring of the thought and distraction of the mind, say the Holy Fathers, if you drive the thought away, you put end to the battle." Thought is the same deed as word. Thoughts defile a man, as Christ said (Mt. 15:19-20), and therefore we must struggle for their purification.
Thoughts are born at the evil periphery of our heart, that is why they are material. We reflect, instead of using the ability to "see", which we lost in Adam. Before we restore the vision of things in their essence, including the vision of ourselves, we will not attain love and genuine life. We will remain in a semi-conscious condition on the verge of sleep. And this sleep of reason indeed bears monsters. The goal of life is to wake up, that is to rise from the dead. The Holy Fathers and Gospel tell us how this should be done.
The first step is restraining feelings. To be free from the imaginary feeling of reality and fullness of life, we need to refuse from food and enjoyment that exceed the everyday necessity. Then, as soon as the feelings return to the norm, to their natural state, spiritual feelings will be able to awaken (spiritual joy, peace, meekness, etc.), including the most important "noetic feeling" where the "the baptismal energy" of the Holy Spirit is stored. This will cause then fading away of the unreasonable attraction to oneself and to the world on one hand, and restoration of the reasonable attraction to God on the other. This requires "standing" of one's mind in front of God, which is possible only when sensual life is confined to the minimum that is needed for keeping alive.
Everyday vanity, troubles and concerns about things temporary and bodily make our inner "mirror", consciousness, dim. This is what prevents us from being aware of the life of the spirit. Our fantasy prepares a synthesis out of five senses, processing the sensual experience according to our perception and ideas. Such distorted reflection of the world and its essence will keep deceiving us until fantasy becomes a sole inner feeling again.
After sinning in Paradise, our mind has acquired a strange love for "non-existence", for illusions; a dissent of the single nature took place. Genuine energy, the "will" of the mind that was able to get down to the essence of all things was left in the heart; our head god only intellect, a formal ability to evaluate situations. It did not already possess any driving, piercing force. It is necessary to overcome the divergence between mind and heart and connect them. Thus, we will be able to set the inner man free from the depth of our heart and transfer him into consciousness. The final result is spiritualisation of the external man and his deification. The way of achieving this is "noetic work", Jesus prayer.
Our reason, "thinking device", constantly requires food. This food, information, is constantly boiling in our head and poisons the soul with its mental images. If there is no external source of information, our mind replaces it with a memory, dream, fantasy, and enjoys it. Distraction or "poisoning" of the mind with an inner fantasy is even more serious than with external feelings. This process does not stop even during sleep. Distraction or "soaring of the mind" is its pathological, sick condition. But this is the way of healing. Saint Basil the Great says: "The mind is devised for unceasing motion, and if something prevents it from pursuing vanity, it is impossible not to move directly towards truth." Thus, the main condition for healing is to be concentrated in oneself, to refuse "sensation" and enjoyment of things. As long as the attention of man is directed at the external (in this case he has become like animals), he will not be able to regain the lost power over himself and his thoughts.
"Everything sensual and comprehensible must pass through crucifixion and burial", says Saint Maxim the Confessor. Indeed, it is worse for the mind than burial and death, that is denial of "food" and of the self-willed wandering across the seas of one's dreams. However, without this violence at oneself, he, as a prodigal son, is not able to repent and return to his long-forgotten spiritual fatherland, his heart. "Repentance, say the Holy Fathers, is tears of the weeping spirit that sells its rich dominion of dreams and carnal desires, and buys the field of repentance with its tears, where the sinful soul is buried, as a lost drachma; and then the spirit labours in the sweat of its face, digging out its loss and cleaning it from dirt. The feast of finding the soul can be great…" Tears during the "noetic work" signify purification of the mind.
We must purify our mind, make it passionless, able to see, we must return it to the heart, then it regains its lost functions — ability to see, contemplate, and pray. In the heart, the mind regains its enjoyment that was forgotten — love, and gets connected with Logos — its Father, shedding tears of purifying, warm and tender compunction, like the prodigal son. In the heart, it calms down, rests and "uses the heart as its dwelling place, and from here rises to God along the path that never leads astray," say the Holy Fathers.
Such mind does not think of external things any more. For it, knowing equals seeing with the eyes. Now "through faith we understand" (Heb. 11:3), for the character of knowing has changed and existence has become a problem. Knowledge and existence were inseparable. To exist means to know, this is where genuine knowledge is born. The knowledge, which starts with a doubt, ends as a lie, for this is no knowledge, but reflection (recall the serpent's move to cause doubt in Eve: "Has God indeed said…?", Gen. 3:1). False knowledge comes from believing one's thought. But God and His deeds cannot be known by mind. Our awareness of existence comes to us as if "through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). We should discard it as unnecessary rubbish and reject as curiosity. Where knowledge comes not through experience, not from Christ, but through generalisation, we deal with a fancy.
The image and symbol structure of our mind creates an illusion of reality and can even substitute it. Our consciousness is overloaded with symbols (words), terms and circuits, as in computer, but unfortunately, unlike in a computer, this play of imagination does not disappear into non-existence, but gets "embodied" in our soul and flesh. Our nervous system and psyche are not able to distinguish the actual situation from the situation that was created in our imagination. That is why a thought of food causes appetite, a thought of pain causes pain, etc. However, thinking of spiritual, unfortunately, cannot spiritualise our nature. We can manipulate only with our own, already created energies. Non-created energy, the grace of the Holy Spirit, is given only by God, providing that we keep His law, which is love.
To know, we need to be in communion with the Divine energy of love, God's grace, for the likeness is know through its likeness. If the law of our heart is love, whereas the law of God's and universal existence is also love, we will achieve combination, mutual permeation not only with God, but also with the whole world, for the world is a materialised Logos — love.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa said: "Nothing from what constitutes our body is bodily." If we saw the world at spiritual level, we would see nothing but spirit. Atoms that compose the world are clots of energy. The solidity of matter is the energy or force of gravity between atoms. Its variety is merely a variety of atomic structures. The spirit creates various forms for itself, but those forms consist of the same spirit.
We need direct, vivid experience to feel the life and spirit of this world. And this experience is love palpitating with awe. We do not understand this because we have no love. In the Divine love, the consciousness "overflows its banks" and floods the world. The heart becomes wide. It feels and permeates (pervades) everything. Love is the highest reason, in it the knowledge melts into one single clairvoyance, into one single inner light. If love stops, not only the mind disappears, but also the beauty of his world, for beauty is what we love. Nature and the universe have neither ugliness, nor evil.
But man's nature is tainted with sin, and someone who gets down to it, encounters not Logos — love, but the serpent of the heart. Such encounter was described by Saint Gregory of Sinai: When we concentrate our attention with the help of our senses (when we imagine or think of the heart), our "soul grows torpid and heavy, then delusion and vain-gloriousness appear instead of bliss."
(Translated from Russian, August 12-16, 2000, Saskatoon; October 2000, Toronto)
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