On Ataraxia

There were two brothers who shared a cell and their humility and patience was praised by many of the fathers. A certain holy man, hearing of this, wanted to test them and see if they possessed true and perfect humility. So he came to visit them. They received him with joy, and all together they said their prayers and their psalms, as usual. Then the visitor went outside the cell and saw their little vegetable garden. Seizing his stick, he rushed in with all his might and began to destroy every plant in sight so that soon there was nothing left at all. Seeing him, the two brothers said not one word. They did not even show sad or troubled faces. Coming back into the cell they finished their prayers for Vespers, and paid him honor, saying, “Abba, if you like, we can get one of the cabbages that is left, and cook it and eat it, for it is now time to eat.” Then the elder fell down before them, saying, “I give thanks to my God, for I see that the Holy Spirit rests on you.”

[from here]


A layman who had a son came to see Abba Sisoes on Abba Anthony’s mountain. On the way, it happened that his son died. He was not troubled by this but brought him with confidence to the old man and bowed down with his son, as though making prostration, so that he would be blessed by the old man. Then the father stood up, left the child at the old man’s feet and went outside. The old man, thinking that the boy was bowing to him said, “Get up, go outside.” For he did not know that he was dead. Immediately the boy stood up and went out. When he saw it, his father was filled with amazement and went back inside. He bowed before the old man and told him the whole story. When he heard it the old man was filled with regret, for he had not intended that to happen. So the disciple asked the father of the child not to speak of it to anyone before the old man’s death.

. . . .

Abba Sisoes said, “Let yourself be despised, cast your own will behind your back, and you will be free from care and at peace.”

[from here]

Ataraxia is the ancient Greek term for the soul which is in equilibrium, at peace, still. Sometimes translated “quietude of soul,” it was the primary focus of life for such diverse ancient philosophical schools as that of Epicurus, the Skeptics and the Stoics. But this stillness should not be read as inactive. One of Aristotle’s contributions to metaphysics was his neologism, energeia–a term that as Dr. David Bradshaw points out (a summary essay is here in Word document, [see also here, again in Word]), had deep ramifications for the global unity of Christians–which conceptualizes that being and essence aren’t static realities but dynamic and active realities. So ataraxia is a stillness of soul that is active and dynamic, even and especially while it is equilibrium. Unless I’m mistaken, St. Gregory Palamas and the hesychasts explicate this quite well.

I offer further comments with the obvious disclaimer that I’m feeling my way forward on this matter, and that admittedly my understanding derives first from my philosophical background and reading, hopefully formed and corrected by my reading in the Scriptures and the Fathers, and my understanding of the Liturgies, and all of it filtered through very limited and fallen personal experience.

It seems to me, then, that ataraxia, stillness of soul, is not, precisely, inactivity or motionlessness, but, rather, more a state of integration. Rather than the soul being fragmented along lines of competing allegiances and various inclinations, a quieted soul is channeled and reordered, the pieces, if you will, are reassembled and the soul is uni-directed. As Father Patrick pointed out in his sermons on St. Elijah the Prophet, appropriating Kierkegaard’s purity of heart is to will one thing, for Christians, purity of heart is to think one thought. According to Fr. Athony Coniaris, citing a research study done by the University of Minnesota, we have about 4000 distinct thoughts in a sixteen hour day (Confronting and Controlling Thoughts According to the Fathers of the Philokalia, [Light and Life, 2004] p. 36). If this is true, then I do not think we must have less distinct thoughts, but, rather, that our thoughts (which instantiate our allegiances and inclinations) are pointed in one direction, their collective energies moving the soul in a singular direction. This is not to say, I do not think, that one may not have sub-allegiances, or multiple inclincations, but, rather that all allegiances and all inclinations are filtered and directed toward one end or goal.

If I’m right about this, then, it seems to me that the work of attaining ataraxia–stillness, quietude, integration, indeed, wholeness–is a matter of eliminating those allegiances and inclincations, those energies, that pull the soul away from its end or goal in the Kingdom of God, the Person of Christ. Christ uses the metaphor of pruning. That is to say, I wonder if it is the case that we don’t attain stillness by willing ourself into stillness so much as we get rid of that which agitates and disquiets the soul. If one wants quiet, one eliminates noise.

From that point, then I am certain, on my reading and experience, that the ridding ourselves of disquiet is going to involve is suffering. One must be willing to suffer all, and not simply willing to suffer all, but to understand, and to accept, that this is normative for us. As St. Paul says, “We must hrough many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). That word “must” is dei, it is necessary. And the tribulations are the thlipses, that pressing of the soul, that straitening of ourselves which does not permit us to enter the narrow way with any entanglements. We lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us, to run the race through the straits.

This is a divine, and a painful, mystery. I for one do not like it one bit. Perhaps there are others who join me in that sentiment. Even if I know that Christ himself endured the Cross and despised its shame, it is unutterably hard to follow in his steps. Even knowing that he was nailed to the Cross in light of the joy set before him, even supposing there is a joy set before me of which I have no earthly idea, when the soul is pressed, when there is pain, no teleology, no instrumentality suffices to calm the heart. It is a paradox then that the soul must be disturbed before it can be at rest, it must know the pain of excision and cutting and wounding before it can know the balm of healing. The soul that desires such integration must first submit to disintegration. There is, apparently, no other way to the Resurrection than through Calvary.

Forgive me, readers, but I hate this. Perhaps others do, too. The distortion of one’s sight by tears only increases the fear, the isolation, the sense of abandonment. Again the paradox: how to abandon oneself to the God by whom one feels oneself abandoned? When the cry of “Eloi” is on one’s lips, one is challenged to find the ability to say, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” We are unable to discern that our hymn-cries are supported by the divine Eucharistic meson. We are clouded. We feel lost.

And indeed, we are losing pieces of ourselves. We are casting off sinful inclinations. We are throwing away distorted mirrors which have reflected back to us distortions of reality. We are cutting away false selves we have grafted onto our identities. All of this hurts. We bleed from such surgeries.

But only here, in what is to us little else but pain and darkness and tears and blood and loss, is the place, I think, where we are supposed to meet God. I wish I could speak with more certainty, but I am not, after all, a saint. St. Benedict and Blessed Seraphim, pray for me. Most Holy Theotokos save us. Lord have mercy.

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