A Meditation on the Unseen Warfare, on Self-Reliance
Through the providence of God, I have had my attention pointedly focused on one deeply rooted fault: self-reliance. First it was through Tito Colliander’s work, Way of the Ascentics. Now I am reading, with the blogodoxical brothers, Unseen Warfare. And once again, my nose is put in this mess of self-reliance. I claim not to be a Pelagian or even a semi-Pelagian. And certainly I know better. But my deceitful heart and my actions make a liar of me. And our recent struggles have brought this deceit out into the light.
[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).]
I confess to having gone from one extreme to another. As a younger man, a recent graduate of Bible college, I had to learn to transition from dependence upon others to personal responsibility for my own choices and actions. That took some years to learn, but after two very difficult sets of personal circumstances in the five years after graduation, I slowly learned to be self-responsible.
But I am learning that that self-responsibility in terms of adult formation and character turns to self-reliance in matters of Faith and spirit on a knife edge. When self-responsibility becomes spiritual self-satisfaction and self-comfort a thin line has been crossed. I cease striving. I cease moving. I become idolatrously content. I have become shackled to my circumstantial status quo, to the world. I become a prisoner.
So St. Theophan, and with him St. Nicodemus and Fr. Lorenzo, says to me:
. . . if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer. (81)
I have violated all of these of late. I have become self-reliant, turning my focus to my own efforts and deeds. I look at what I have done and by that judge myself as succeeding or failing in the faith. I do not trust God, not even mildly, let alone wildly with bold daring. My “Yes, Lord” is always followed with “but, if.” I am constantly hedging my faith so as not to be disappointed or pained. I have failed to believe wholly in God’s goodness. I encounter these present trials and I grow despondent and do not strive. What is the use? I do not light the vigil lamp. I do not pray. I make excuses.
This is what comes of self-reliance. Utter and abject failure. I needed to be awakened. So I find myself saying in this mean time, without emotion I admit but nonetheless forcing it out: “Thank you God for this.” I hope one day to feel that gratitude I intend to express. But right now I’m not sure I even understand what it is I’m saying. This is my consolation, though: faith is more than understanding.
Since the time of the transgression of our forefather, despite this weakening of our spiritual and moral powers, we are wont to think very highly of ourselves. Although our daily experiences very effectively proves to us the falseness of this opinion of ourselves, in our incomprehensible self deception we do not cease to believe that we are something, and something not unimportant. Yet this spiritual disease of ours, so hard to perceive and acknowledge, is more abhorrent to God than all else in us, as being the first offspring of our self-hood and self-love, and the source, root and cause of all passions and of all our downfalls and wrong-doing. It closes the very door of our mind or spirit, through which alone Divine grace can enter, and gives this grace no way to come and dwell in a man. And so it withdraws from him. (81-82)
Yes, I closed the door. I see that now. I did not know it, but it is clear on this side of grace. So I am darkened, ignorant, blind. I once prayed almost daily the morning prayer: Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation. For a time I was negligent in this prayer. My lamp had not been trimmed. I found myself without oil. I pray it again, now, with or without wick or oil. I know only that it is mine to pray, daily.
And so, my brother, I offer you here four activities by means of which, with God’s help, you may end by acquiring disbelief in yourself, and learn never to rely on yourself in anything.
(a) Realise your nothingness and constantly keep in your mind the fact that by yourself you can do nothing good which is worthy of the kingdom of heaven. . . .
(b) Ask for God’s help in this with warm and humble prayers; for this is His gift. . . .
(c) Accustom yourself to be wary and to fear your innumerable enemies whom you cannot resist even for a short time. Fear their long experience in fighting us, their cunning and ambushes, their power to assume the guise of angels of light, their countless wiles and nets, which they secretly spread on the path of y our life of virtues.
(d) If you fall into some transgression, quickly turn to the realisation of your weakness and be aware of it. For God allows you to fall for the very purpose of making you more aware of your weakness, so that you may thus not only yourself learn to despise yourself, but because of your great weakness may wish to be despised also by others. Know that without such desire it is impossible for this beneficent self-disbelief to be born and take root in you. . . .
I must add that not only when a man falls into some sin, but also when he is afflicted by some ill-fortune, tribulation or sorrow, and especially a grievous and long-drawn bodily sickness, he must understand that he suffers this in order to acquire self-knowledge, namely the knowledge of his weakness–and to become humble. (82-83, 84)
Lord have mercy. I know in part. I see in part. And what I see and know is the idolatry of self-reliance. I had become slothful, disobedient, prayerless. I needed this discipline, even though I have not yet learned to embrace it. Even though I still pull away from the purifying fire.
I do so because my faith is weak, and I do not yet trust in God as I should. I have an adult, calculating faith, much to small to fit, when I should have the faith of a child, which alone is roomy and allows freedom of movement.
Although, as we have said, it is very important not to rely on our own efforts in this unseen warfare, at the same time, if we merely give up all hope of ourselves and despair of ourselves without having found another support, we are certain to flee immediately from the battlefield or to be overcome and taken prisoner by our enemies. Therefore, together with complete renunciation of ourselves, we should plant in our heart a perfect trust in God and a complete confidence in Him. In other words we should feel with our whole heart that we have no one to rely on except God, and that from Him and Him alone can we expect every kind of good, every manner of help, and victory. . . .(85-86)
Already I want victory. Already I want rescue. Already I am tired of this discipline and find the thought of its continuance distasteful, even hopeless. I am blind. Is there a remedy? St. Theophan gives this medicine to a sin-sickened soul:
The following thoughts will help you to be grounded in this hope and, thereby, to receive help:
(a) that we seek help from God, Who is Omnipotent and can do all that He chooses, and therefore can also help us.
(b) that we seek it from God, Who, being Omniscient and Wise, knows all in the most perfect manner, and therefore knows fully what is best for the salvation of each one of us.
(c) that we seek help from God, Who is infinitely Good and Who comes to us with ineffable love, always desirous and ready from hour to hour and from moment to moment to give us all the help we need for complete victory in the spiritual warfare which takes place in us, as soon as we run with firm trust to the protection of His arms.
And how is it possible that our good Shepherd, Who for three years went in search of sheep that had gone astray, calling so loudly that His throat became parched, and following ways so hard and thorny that He shed all His blood and gave up His life; how is it possible, I repeat, that now, if His sheep follow Him, turn to Him with love and call for His help with hope, He should fail to turn His eyes to the lost sheep, take it into His divine arms and, placing it among the heavenly angels, make a welcoming feast for its sake? If our God never ceases to search diligently and lovingly for the blind and deaf sinner (like the woman for the piece of silver in the Gospels), how is it possible to suppose that He would abandon him now when, like a lost sheep, he cries out calling for his Shepherd? And who will ever believe that God, Who, according to the Revelation, constantly stands at the door of a man’s heart, and knocks, wishing to come in and sup with him (Rev. iii.20), and bestow His gifts upon him, who will believe that this same God should remain deaf and refuse to enter if a man opens to Him the door of his heart and invites Him in?
(d) And the fourth method of bringing to life a firm trust in God and of attracting His speedy help is to review in our memory all the instances of speedy divine help described in the Scriptures. These instances, which are so numerous, show us clearly that no one, who put his trust in God, was ever left confounded and with out help. ‘Look at the generations of old,’ says the wise Sirach, ‘and see; did ever any trust in the Lord, and was confounded?’ (Ecclesiasticus ii.10) (85-86)
Our God is an ever-present help in times of danger, our refuge. I see my problem. At least part of it. In becoming self-reliant I have begun to doubt the goodness of God. Oh, I say, I am afraid that this bad thing might happen, so I will do everything I can to avoid it. And when my efforts to avoid this other side of grace, this sparing mercy of God, become my efforts, my flight, my machinations, I reject not just this grace, which is God’s energetic fellowship with me, I reject the God who is this grace. In my self-reliance, then, I am condemned to my self-willed solitude. If I will not cooperate with grace, then God will allow me my choice. If I do not have faith enough to trust him, then he will allow me my faith in myself. If I fear he is not good, he will release me to that fear, for it is what I have chosen instead of him. If my prayers are those of the vain babblers who attempt to control God’s mercy and provision by their many words and their “correct theology,” then they will receive their reward, which is precisely that of many words and arid theology.
This abandonment of self for trust in God seems to my adult faith so wild, so insane, so crazy that I fear to do it. I fear that the headlong casting of myself into the arms of the heavenly Father will result in my falling and being dashed against the rocks of devastation.
My daughter does not think of things in this way. She does not have this fear. She has only a child’s faith, knowing that when she asks me to throw her in the air I will always catch her. Indeed, she is bold. She does not wait for me to take her in my arms and toss her into the air and catch her. No, her undivided trust demands of me: “Catch me, Daddy.” I take her in my arms, toss her in the air, and her smile and laughter radiate joy and peace.
I am greatly in need of my daughter’s faith. Teach me, little Wisdom, what it is to trust our God.