I suppose that hubris comes not just to the academically inclined, but to potentially all persons, but it seems from my own life that academia breeds it in ways of which I am unaware in other vocations. Particularly the hubris of thought. That is to say: the o’erweening confidence in one’s own mind and analytical abilities. After all, if one has spent something like eleven years (as in my own case) in formal pursuit of undergraduate and graduate academic degrees, one is going to quite naturally be forced to sharpen one’s anaylitical capacities.
But one’s analytical abilities begin to fail when one is confronted with crises of some level of suffering. The pain, fear and anxiety attendent upon such suffering make it extremely difficult to think clearly. And then, of course, is the fact that we are, necessarily, not reasoning from all the facts. The Holy Trinity has a perspective on our plight that we cannot have on our own. It is dangerous to rely wholly on one’s own judgments in these circumstances. Thus we are exhorted, as our Father Deacon reminded me:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Proverbs 3:5-8)
If my journey through Unseen Warfare began with a stinging rebuke about my own self-reliance, it continues that theme by demolishing my prideful self-confidence in my own thought.
[Note: all the following quotes are from Unseen Warfare, as edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by Theophan the Recluse (SVS Press, 2000).]
As St. Theophan, and the others, explain:
The reason why we have wrong judgment of the things we mentioned earlier is that we do not look deeply into them to see what they are, but conceive a liking for them or a dislike of them from the very first glance, judging by appearances. These likes and dislikes prejudice our mind and darken it: and so it cannot form a right judgment of things as they really are. So, my brother, if you wish to be free of this prelest [spiritual deception] in your mind, keep strict attention over yourself; and when you see a thing with your eyes, or visualize it in your mind, keep a firm grip on your desires and do not allow yourself at the first glance to conceive a liking for the thing or a dislike for it, but examine it in a detached way with the mind alone. Unobscured by passion, the mind then remains in a state natural to it, which is free and pure, and has the possibility to know the truth and to penetrate into the depths of a thing, where evil is often concealed under a deceptively attractive exterior and where good is sometimes hidden under a bad appearance. (91)
It is wholly normal to dislike the pain. But if, in my natural response, I begin to give my desire to be free from pain the lead, it will impair my ability to dispassionately assess the circumstances from a godly viewpoint. Just as athletes must work through the pain of exhausted muscles if they are to increase their stamina and to grow, so, too, in this spiritual athletic contest, it may well be the case, and I am told often is, that I must not run from the pain but endure through it, knowing that in following our Lord the road to the Resurrection lies along the Via Dolorosa. Only by not giving way to my desire to avoid pain can I gain the dispassion necessary to accurately view the circumstances in God’s light.
But if desire comes first and at once either likes a thing or turns away from it, your mind no longer has the possibility to know it rightly as it should. For if this predisposition, or rather this passion precedes every judgment, it enters within, becomes a wall between the mind and the thing and, obscuring the mind, makes it form its judgment from passion. In other words, it sees it not as it really is, which strengthens still more its original predisposition. The further this predisposition runs ahead, or the more it likes or dislikes a thing, the more it obscures the mind in relation to it, until it darkens the mind completely. Then the passion in relation to this thing reaches its ultimate limits, so that it appears to a man either as the most desirable or the most hateful of all the things he ever liked or disliked. Thus it happens that of when the rule I have indicated is not observed, that is, when desire is not restrained from forming likes and dislikes before a thing is properly examined, then both these powers of the soul–mind and will–always work wrongly, plunging ever deeper and deeper from darkness to darkness, and from sin to sin.
So watch, my believed, with all attention and protect yourself from liking or disliking a thing out of passion, before you have had time to examine it properly in the light of reason and the just word of the Divine Scriptures, in the light of grace and prayer, and with the help of the judgment of your spiritual father; otherwise you may sin in taking for evil what is truly good, and for good what is truly evil. (91-92)
In other words, in my pain I quite naturally choose from my character, which is to say, I choose from passion, from wanting this or fearing that. I do not choose from faith, from peace and stability. I waver to and fro, ever unstable, a divided man.
Exacerbating this internal schism is the natural need for consolation which too often seeks out that which it wants to hear. There are lips from which we know we will hear that it’s alright, that will reinforce our own passionate opinions, which are fueled by the desire to escape and to avoid further pain and suffering, by telling us to take it easy, to pamper ourselves. We will not often hear what is perhaps often what we must hear: stand firm and immovable where you are, do not seek to escape it.
Part of that move to pamper ourselves, to narcotize our souls against the pain is the seeking of noise, even if that noise is internal. In crisis and suffering, silence after all is lonely and ever more painful. We are confronted with the stark and bare realities of our circumstances. There is nowhere to run and hide. It is like being on a bare, windswept plain, naked and exposed under the watchful eyes of the heavens. So we turn on the television or the radio, even if we are not watching it or listening to the music. We immerse ourselves in ephemeral reading. We do not pray. We do not listen.
St. Theophan warns:
Just as it is necessary to guard the mind from ignorance, so is it equally necessary to protect it from the opposite, namely from too much knowledge and curiosity. For if we fill it with a quantity of information, ideas and thoughts, not excluding such as are vain, unsuitable and harmful, we deprive it of force, so that it is no longer able to understand clearly what is useful for our true self-correction and perfection. Therefore in relation to the knowledge of earthly things, which is not indispensable, even if it is permissible, your attitude should be as of one already dead. Always collect your mind within yourself, with all the concentration you can, and keep it free of thoughts about all worldly things.
Let tales of the past and news of the present pass you by, and let all the changes in the world and its kingdoms be for you as though they did not exist at all. If anyone brings you such news, disregard it and turn it away from your heart and imagination. . . . Love to hear only of spiritual and heavenly things and to study them, and wish to know nothing in the world save our Lord ‘Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (I Cor. ii.2), save His life and death and what He demands of you. . . .
All other enquiry and investigation is the offspring and food of self-love and pride. They are the nets and shackles of the devil; he sees the strength and firmness of will of those who pay attention to spiritual life, and strives to conquer their minds by means of such curiosity, in order to gain possession of their mind and will. for this purpose he is wont to suggest to them thoughts that are lofty, subtle and wondrous, especially to those who are sharp-witted and quick to make lofty speculations. Attracted by the pleasure of possessing and examining such lofty thoughts, they forget to watch over their purity of heart and to pay attention to a humble opinion of themselves and to true self-mortification; and so they are enmeshed in the bonds of pride and conceit; they make an idol of their own mind and thus, little by little, without realising it, they fall into the thought that they no longer need any advice or admonition from others, since they are accustomed in all cases to hasten to the idol of their own understanding and judgment. (92-93)
I hardly dare proffer my own wisdom, since I have none, but if I understand the Fathers correctly, what we need to know is counted on one hand. And part of God’s intent in our suffering is to purge us of all that which is not Christ, so that we may know the one thing needful.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:25-34)
God provides us our shelter, our clothing, our food, “all these things.” But his providence is in the whirlwind too. When evil threatens or befalls, it is for me to relinquish self-reliance, to cease thinking I can figure things out and save myself, to place my faith in his goodness, to seek first his Kingdom, and to say, “This too is God’s providence.”
May the most loving, good and gracious God make me a child in faith.
Lord have mercy.