Mortal sins, naming them and their effect on us, then how to set free from them.
by Father Gavin Ashenden at the retreat in Rhodes, Greece – September 2012
Father Gavin Ashenden
Many of us have enjoyed watching the Olympics this summer.
The discipline and achievements of the athletes was remarkable and inspirational.
Their deepest appetite was to do as well as they could in the struggle.
They ran for gold medals –
we are running for the embrace of love, for the joy heaven, for miracle of transformation.
It’s no surprise that Christians have looked at athletes and said – that’s like us. We do that. We have our eyes too on a goal, and we are willing to give up a great deal, discipline ourselves and struggle to make it.
That’s how St Paul speaks as well.
1 Corinthians 9.24
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it … I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Monks and nuns are often called athletes of the spiritual life.
But any baptised Christian is called to be an athletes of the Spirit, as we struggle with the life of the Spirit in one hand and our lower nature on the other – the lower nature theologically called ‘the flesh’ in St Paul’s letters.
As human beings we are caught half way between the animals and the angels, and we see, even in this life the visible process of people becoming more angelic, or more brutish.
But we are involved in a continual struggle, because we have two natures, flesh and Spirit, entwined into one. Two natures, Adam and Christ, striving to be formed in each of us.
There is no place of neutrality – we are caught between heaven and hell and our Lord who is both creator and Saviour is doing, has done, all that us possible to the shedding of his own blood, the losing of his own life, the confronting in Gethsemane and on the cross of all the evil there is, to bring us to heaven.
But if we return to the image of the athlete, our struggle is more like that of the Paralympics, where the athletes are all disabled.
For although we can’t see them easily in one another, each of us comes to this struggle with wounds – and with the different and usually hidden burdens we all carry.
One of the reasons we must never judge each other’s progress is that we cannot tell what wounds each other carries – nor what burdens.
So we know we have to try hard – but as with everything in life, trying hard is part of the solution – but learning how to do it better is also part of it.
There is also a technique to any struggle – hints that may help us on the way, if only by identifying more clearly what the struggle is.
FALSE ALTERATIVE SOLUTIONS
One of the characteristics of our present culture is that the church turns to two other resources rather than the spiritual focus.
The first is politics. We should not be afraid to speak against political forces that make it their end to imprison the Church and wound human souls. But equally we should not imagine that the political weapons will bring in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus was not a political Messiah, despite all Judas’ energetic promptings.
Christian too often try to solve the problems of the world by using political power to good ends. We partly do this because we has become blinded to the reality of the spiritual world.
But real transformation for society lies in the transformation of the people in it, and that requires the struggle with sin which otherwise corrupts and cripples us.
The other direction that the Church has turned to shift the weight of sin is psychology.
Secular Christianity has fallen for the Freudian lie that the struggle with our darker self amounts to promoting neurosis.
Freud understood well enough that there was struggle between primal powers and conscience. But he chose to affirm the legitimacy of primal energy – the Id, and to undermine the legitimacy of the conscience, the super ego. And worst of all, he set up the association between spiritual experience and unsound mental stability or madness, – a lie which the world immediately and enthusiastically swallowed whole.
The Freudian lie continues that the struggle between our lower and primitive energies amounts to repression and repression is bad.
So don’t struggle, – talk to a therapist instead.
At the same time, in case Freud’s distaste for religion and spirituality did not capture everyone, an alternative lie appeared for the more instinctively spiritual, in the work of Carl Gustav Jung. The Jungian lie is that the self is the god. That our divinisation lies in recognising that we are god. And secondly that there is no evil, only shadow, and the shadow has to be not rejected but welcomed, to ensure psychological wholeness.
In the face of false promise that our salvation lies in bringing in the Kingdom of Heaven by using political energy, or that human health lies in giving up the struggle and turning ourselves into mini gods, we turn away from the corruption of the secular models, and towards Scripture and Tradition.
Scripture is of course perfectly clear if we let it speak for itself.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:11-13
The Messages are of course the most clear and unambiguous resource of authority to help us in the face of our more secular cultural instincts
Flesh v the spirit –
St Paul, reminds us of the nature of the common spiritual struggle
“I say to you, walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.
For the flesh struggles against the spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary to one another., so that you do not do the thing that you wish.” Galatians 5.16
But most of the struggle that we face goes on quietly, almost secretly, in the mundane and ordinary moments of every day life.
There is no great advantage to the enemy to turn our temptation into drama. It is much more effective to set about temptation slowly and with subtlety, so that it is hardly noticed.
There is a story, which gives you advice on how to boil a frog.
If you drop a frog in a pan of boiling water he immediately leaps out again with a reflex action. He is hurt but not killed or boiled.
So you put him in a pan of tepid water, which you heat up very slowly.
There is no moment when the frog panics, as the change in the temperature is slow and subtle. But he ends up cooked.
And so it is with much temptation that we suffer.
We know how to struggle with some of the big issues.
But it is often the ones that start small that get through our defences and become ‘normalised’.
But having re-emphasised the nature of the struggle that faces us, our task is to find ways of defending ourselves against the temptations that we are presented with.
The time and space we have is small, so I hope you will forgive me whatever is lacking from this overview. Centuries of monastic and other attention have been dedicated to these matters.
Well, firstly we must define our terms. What do we mean by this?
In the Christian Orthodox East, there is no distinction as there in the West between Mortal and Venial sins.
A mortal sin amongst the Orthodox is simply a sin we do not repent of. Any sin un-repented of may cause our spiritual death.
Theology in the West likes patterns and systems.
And so people began to make lists of the more serious temptations and sins we face in our pilgrimage.
The monk Evagrius of Ponticus, a heroic athlete of the spiritual struggle, whom we are going to draw on heavily this morning, made such a list in about 375.
He started life in Constantinople where he fell in love with a married woman, and fled this encounter to Jerusalem. From there he went to become a monk in Egypt.
It was he who first suggested there were 8 cardinal sins or thoughts:
The eight seducing thoughts (logismoi), contain within themselves every [tempting-] impulse:
2, sexual immorality;
3 love of money;
He wrote “Whether these thoughts are able to disturb the soul or not is not up to us; but whether they linger or not, and whether they arouse passions or not; that is up to us”.
In 590 AD Pope Gregory the made one or two changes, adding envy to the list , and they become the “Seven Deadly Sins”.
I don’t want to compete with Pope Gregory, but for in the short time we have I want to further condense these temptations.
I notice that Evagrius has three groups consisting of Desires, Feelings, and Status.
Under desires I want condense these into the following categories:
1 Greed: which will includes in particular Lust (sex but involves also food and money).
2 Disordered feelings: Anger
3 Status: Pride and Despair
It was sometime in the final decade of the fourth century, a monk named Loukios wrote to Evagrius of Pontus, who was one of the leading spiritual guides among the monks of the Egyptian desert at the time.
Loukios asked Evagrius to compose for him a treatise that would explain the tactics of the demons that try to undermine the monastic life; Loukios hoped that such a work would help him and others to resist more successfully the evil suggestions that the demons made.
In response, Evagrius sent Loukios a letter, now known as his fourth, and a copy of the work ‘Antirrhētikos’, best translated as ‘Talking Back’. Among the monks of late antiquity and early Byzantium, it became one of the most popular of Evagrius’ books:
The genius of ‘Talking Back’ is that we are not left to be victims of the constant undermining assault of corruption where we just grin, bear and resist as best we can, but we talk back.
A form of fourth century ‘pilgrim empowerment’.
In Talking Back we are presented with the thoughts, circumstances, and anxieties with which the demons assailed the monk, and we are given a primary strategy in the struggle to overcome such assaults: antirrhēsis, consists of the speaking of relevant passages from the Bible that contradict or, as Evagrius puts it, cut off the demonic suggestions.
Evagrius gathers together 498 pieces of Scripture which he arranges to be used to confront different kind s of voices, demons or temptations. We are going to use some of them in this paper this morning as we look at the temptations to sin we face.
If we were to ask the question, how much of the trouble we suffer from is directly demonic and how much simply arises out of our own flawed nature, it’s a comfort to know that Evagrius asked the same question.
Evagrius didn’t bother to distinguish between thought and demonic impulse. He sees the two as intermingled. It amounted to the same thing. John Cassian did, and put more weight on the stimulus of our fallen nature. He spoke more frequently of vices than of demons and by situating the monk’s conflict with temptation more within the interior division between the fallen human being’s spirit and flesh than within Evagrius’ cosmic division between human beings and demons.
I want to suggest that the answer may simply be that one exacerbates the other. Our own nature, flawed as it is will already cause us difficulties with its disordered appetites, but that the demonic dimension brings a greater intensity and energy to our own natural state.
I think that means that we have to ask questions firstly of our own nature and particular vulnerabilities, and then factor in the demonic dimension.
Our daily prayer is the best means of protecting ourselves against the energising of our disordered appetites by the enemy.
Our situation is an extended picture of the Disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. Our Lord asks us to keep awake – to stay alert – and we are so often overcome by distraction and spiritual sleep.
Our daily prayers and the continual recollection of the Lord’s presence are the essentials of where we being our resistance to the temptations that come.
The seriousness of the situation is reinforced by our Lord making it clear in the Messages that he wants us to pray the prayer to St Michael every day.
The origins of that prayer may not be known to everyone, but highlight the context of the spiritual struggle that is particularly fierce in our time.
Pope Leo XIII (d. 1903) had a prophetic vision of the coming century of sorrow and war. After celebrating Mass, the Holy Father was conferring with his cardinals. Suddenly, he fell to the floor. The cardinals immediately called for a doctor. No pulse was detected, and the Holy Father was feared dead. Just as suddenly, Pope Leo awoke and said, “What a horrible picture I was permitted to see!” In this vision, God gave Satan the choice of one century in which to do his worst work against the Church. The devil chose the twentieth century. So moved was the Holy Father from this vision that he composed the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel. Pope Leo ordered this prayer said at the conclusion of Mass in 1886.
When Pope Paul VI issued the Novus Ordo of the Mass in 1968, the prayer to St. Michael and the reading of the “last gospel” at the end of the Mass were suppressed.)
But in 1994, a more alert John Paul the 2nd encouraged its re-introduction.
SPECIFIC ADVICE – TALKING BACK
Evagrius points out that when Jesus encountered Satan in the wilderness in the head on conflict that took place there, he used the technique of turning to Scripture and talking back. He didn’t accept Satan’s frame of reference, his baited hook, he didn’t argue from the angle that Satan approached with; He re-diagnosed the issue, by turning to Scripture and letting Scripture do the confronting. The Word of God used the word of God .
In fact Jesus “always” responded to his attacker with scriptural references., throughout his Jesus’ entire ministry; both in his interactions with human as well as demonic opponents (e.g., Mark 2:23-27).
So let us turn to the mortal sins and how we might identify them and evade them
We begin with
1 GREED AND LUST
Both are disordered appetites, but lust can be seen as an aspect of Greed –In the Messages we find Lust contrasted to poverty:
I know how many of your brothers have turned their backs to you; these are, My beloved, those shepherds who know nothing, feel nothing, they all go their own way, each after his own interest, serving Folly instead of Wisdom, Lust instead of Poverty, Disobedience instead of Obedience; (September 20, 1989)
I once knew a Bishop’s chaplain who said that part of his job was to be a go between with the bishop when priests got into trouble. And that he had got used to classifying priests not according to the three classification in Anglicanism of Catholic, Liberal or Evangelical, but instead into three appetites – Money, sex or drink.
They are of course only three different kinds of greed – and there is no doubt that different characters are more vulnerable to one kind of greed than to another.
So perhaps the first thing we should ask ourselves is where we are weakest in terms of our disordered appetites, – because it is there that the demons will concentrate their attentions.
We should take note too of the fact that they always start small in order to end up big, Any temptation that commends itself to us on the basis that its scale is so small it is not something to worry about, it something we should worry about!
Indeed the amount or scale may not matter a great deal – in Gods eyes –
Nor indeed whether or not it is acted on or only welcome in our thoughts.
I think I see more of what our Lord meant when he said that to look at a woman with desire was in fact to commit adultery, This is often taken as Semitic exaggeration or hyperbole by commentators, but I think that what he meant is that the spiritual realm is quite as ultimately real as the material realm.
What I mean is this. Angels are not less real than humans just because they are spirit. We accept that. But this means too that when we consent to a sin in our spirits, or imaginations to use a more familiar word, it is still real in the dimension of God. God sees both matter and spirit as real. Perhaps in many ways spirit is more real than matter. But what this means then is that sin takes place whether or not it is acted out physically.
In one sense this is obvious. Pride which we will come to is an attitude. It is no less sinful for existing in the spirit than for having consequences when it is acted upon. Indeed CS Lewis used to say that the most dangerous sins are precisely the ones that are not visible materially; both because they are invisible and also because the realm of the spirit where they operate is the more serious environment.
What does this mean?
It means we take the imagination of the world of our thoughts as seriously as the world of our hands.
Jesus makes the same point when he invites us to be reconciled with our brother before going to the altar to meet God. Why? Because the sin of the attitude is real enough to stand in the way of an encounter with God.
But does this mean that we are guilty according to whatever happens in the worlds of our thoughts?
Evagrius would say that many of the thoughts are place there by the demons.
The come unbidden to us. We did not plan or create them – they happen to us.
What matters is the extent to which we consent – which is why it is helpful to notice them and then rebuke them as soon as possible!
My own response when I find myself suddenly taken down a route in the imagination that I should not be taking, is to rebuke the thought.
“Aha – I have seen you – and having seen what you are up to, I reject you”
Followed by the shorter baptism declaration –
“I turn to Christ, I repent of my sins, I renounce evil.”
And then either follow that by praying the Jesus prayer, or a decade of the rosary.
St Ambrose of Optina (A Russian monk and Staretz from the 19th C)
“One ascetic woman was besieged for a long time with unclean thoughts. When the Lord came and cast them away from her, she called to Him: ‘Where were you before now, O my sweet Jesus?’ The Lord answered: ‘I was in your heart.’ She said then: ‘How could that be? For my heart was full of unclean thoughts.’ The Lord said to her: ‘Know that I was in your heart, for you were not disposed to the unclean thoughts, but strove rather to be free of them; and when you were not able to be free, you struggled and grieved. By this you prepared a place for Me in your heart.’”
Whether the appetite that is sharpened in us and seduced is money, sex, or drink, the lie behind it is always the same. It is the promise of comfort.
Of course the promise is false. It is a lie.
It is a lie at two levels.
The world of lust is an untrue world, which we invent in our own imaginations, where we become God.
We create a world of fantasy where there is no relationship, only a script and drama we force on the object of our imagination through desire.
We create a drama where there is no relationship, no mutuality no accountability, only manipulation of the imagination to bring a shallow delight based on a falsehood.
The comfort derives from a lie.
But of course it is not only lust where we find ourselves presented with images in the imagination designed to give us pleasure.
It happens also when we create in our heads and imaginations dramas of revenge. It is only too easy to give in to the pictures that present ourselves where we re-write what has happened to us, to bring us comfort, relief or revenge.
How can we deal with the images and the seduction of our imagination when we find ourselves drawn into the false world that lust creates?
St Paul suggests that we take each thought captive to Christ.
2 Corinthians 4.6
For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
If the imagination is usurped by thoughts which manipulate images of people to fulfil improper comforts, we can either refuse the thoughts or subvert them.
Refusing can sometimes be difficult. The more we turn away from something an entrancement, the more power it can have to haunt us.
But what if we introduce Christ into the drama.
Wherever our imaginations want to find their own way to produce a false comfort for in matters of lust or revenge, there is a way of taking the thought captive to Christ.
In our imagination, instead of abandoning ourselves to the false comfort and pleasure we can direct the imagination in the form of a waking meditation.
Whoever’s image has found their way into our mind, we don’t simply accept the situation and endure, we can act proactively. We can carry whoever the image represents, whoever they are to the foot of the cross.
Strange things happen in this form of waking meditation. It is almost as if the drama has a life of its own.
We take the person in question, by the hand, by the arm, by invitation to follow and come with us, and we walk them to the foot of the cross, and we introduce them to Jesus who looks down from the cross.
And then we leave the person, the image in the presence of Jesus.
Some I have noticed are glad to see him –some try to hide from him, some wish to avoid him – but often something quite profound happens between them.
So instead of just fighting the temptation we also subvert it by bringing it into the presence of Christ. Instead of struggling with demonic desire, we have turned the moment into a meeting with Christ and intercession for their well-being rather than false comfort for ours.
When the voice or the image comes – take them to Jesus.
It seems to me that our looking, and the manner of our looking can be a ways in which we deal with temptation.
We all know there are certain images it is best not to look at – a kind of custodianship of the eyes. But in the same way that we can glance over something, or change or perspective and look at something, we can also look in as well as at.
So much of what is presented to our eyes is designed to excite our lust or our greed.
Our whole consumerist capitalist culture is based on some very clever people working out how to get through our defences and excite our appetites.
So when we look, how do we look?
Dante in his great poem the Divine Comedy, kept on saying, “Look. But Look WELL.”
Do we look at the exterior that is presented, or do we look with the eyes of discernment, and ask the Holy Spirit to show us something more of the real person or the real event under the skin of the body, behind the appearance, so that we become more aware of the reality behind the presentation.
Scripture to combat the demons of greed:
And you will know today that the Lord your God will advance before you. He is a consuming fire. He will destroy them and turn them back from before you, and he will destroy them quickly, just as the Lord said to you (Deut 9:3).
Lord, why are they who afflict me so numerous? Many rise up against me. Many say to my soul, “There is no salvation for him in his God.” But you, Lord, are my helper, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head (Ps 3:2-4)
Against the unclean thoughts that persist in us and frequently depict in us obscene images and that bind our intellect with passions of desire in our dishonorable members:
Depart from me, all your workers of iniquity, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping; the Lord has heard my petition; the Lord has accepted my prayer (Ps 6:9-10)
Against the thoughts that compel us to linger in conversation with a married woman on the pretext that she has visited us frequently, that she will benefit spiritually from us:
Do not be long with someone else’s woman (Prov 5:20)
From the Lamentations of Jeremiah
To the Lord concerning the thoughts of fornication that have persisted in me:
See, Lord, my humiliation, for the enemy has become magnified (Lam 1:9).
2 Disordered feelings
Anger is one of the marks of our culture.
It is interesting and alarming to see people becoming angrier.
Once again, our culture has turned and twisted the human response to anger out of shape.
Therapy does have some very useful insights to offer- especially in the identifying of hidden anger. For some people, their fear of being unacceptable if they acknowledge their anger, or their terror at what the anger might do if it is released, turns the anger inward and contributes to the weight of depression.
But our therapeutic culture may be good at digging the anger out, but less good at helping people live with it or heal the causes of it.
There are of course different kinds of anger, and different contexts in which anger is expressed.
Aristotle distinguished between three types of anger:-
1 Sudden loss of temper
2 Long standing resentment and anger that seeks vengeance.
3 But also the silent anger that could not be expressed because you were not the equal of the person who had offended you.
We want to simply note that Aristotle recognised there was a spectrum of anger, and from a Christian point of view learn how to distinguish anger that is not sinful from anger that is.
St Paul in Ephesians 4.26 recognises the legitimacy of some anger but also its danger and toxicity.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.
There is an anger in response to injustice, or cruelty or blasphemy, which is a morally legitimate response. But how we use the anger and give expression to it is more problematic.
In the Messages there are warnings about anger. We are pointed to the archetypal anger from Cain towards Abel which led to murder.
We remember too that the devil is described as a ‘murderer’ and anger and rage are the natural poisons with which he attempts to infiltrate our hearts. However righteous we feel, there is always the great danger that we are contributing to his dynamic rather than the Kingdom of Heaven.
Our Lord Jesus builds a bridge between the material world and the spiritual world when he links anger with murder.
Matthew 5:21-26 NIV
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
There is the obvious danger that anger in the heart or spirit can spill over into action in the material world. But Jesus teaching as with adultery says more than that. The world of the spirit is one where even if things are not observed they are real, again sometimes more real than the material world we can evaluate and measure more easily. And so the temptation to anger and rage can be a temptation to murder in the heart, in the same way as looking and imagining sexual intimacy is adultery in the heart.
The Desert Fathers tell a story:
Like St Benedict, we do not solve a problem when we carry it around with us, by moving.
“one day a monk filled his jug with water and put it on the ground. Suddenly, it happened to fall over. He filled it gain, and again it fell. It happened even a third time. In a rage he snatched it up and smashed it. Coming to his senses he knew the demon of anger had mocked him, and he said, “here I am, by myself and he has beaten me. I will return to the community. Wherever you live you need effort, patience, and above all God’s help.” So he got up and went back.’
One of the brothers asked Isodore, the priest of Scetius why the demons were so afraid of him. And he answered,
“Ever since I become a monk I have been trying not to let anger rise as far as my mouth.”
The temptation to anger is a profound one. And again, it usually comes with a demonic lie that our anger is entirely justified. We are only too keen to rehearse how someone has hurt or wounded us, without ever knowing the effect of our lives, words and attitudes on them. We cannot know where justice lies between ourselves and those with whom we have fallen out. Which is why the Christian antidote to rage and anger is to turn the other cheek and mop up the venom of the demons with the humble forgiveness of the Christ.
How might be escape the lure of this dangerous sin?
In the messages we are reminded time and time again that our Lord looks for victim souls who are willing to suffer for his sake but also for the sake of the whole world. When we become angry we demand our rights – certain we are in the right. Even if we are in the right in the limited sense that the other person behaved worse than we did, we are never fully in the right. No incident can be isolated from the rest of our lives – we are never in credit morally with God –and so have no right to claim the moral high ground, even by isolating the incident we are angry over. We always remain the publican begging the Lord to have mercy on me – the sinner.
We might too ask our Lord for the grace of being able to see differently. I once had a profoundly destructive relationship with another man who did me some harm, and refused to be reconciled with me when I asked. I appeared in my own eyes to be entirely ‘in the right’ (though I now think some years later that I over-estimated the moral strength of my position).
I suddenly saw him, not as a man, but as a child of about 8, huddled in a corner looking utterly miserable and almost in the foetus position. He was suffering deeply in his soul and had been for a long time. When I saw how he suffered and how miserable he was, I was able to forgive him freely the damage he had done me, and find resources of love and compassion for him that my anger would never have tolerated.
Biblical Texts for responding to the demon of anger:
Against the thoughts of anger that arise along the way of righteous living:
“Do not get angry along the way” (Gen 45:24).
Against the soul that accepts thoughts of anger and collects against the brothers wicked pretexts and false suspicions:
“Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; do not be anxious, so that you do evil. For the evildoers shall be destroyed, but those who wait for the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.” (Ps 36:8-9).
Against the thought that collects wicked ideas against a brother, for example, that he is negligent or he is a reviler or he does not do what he ought:
Do not devise evil things against your friend, who lives near you and trusts in you “(Prov3:29)
Against the thought of anger that prevents us from answering with humility those who chastise us rightly:
“Anger destroys even wise persons; a submissive answer turns away anger, but a painful word raises up anger” (Prov 15:1)
Against the intellect that is not merciful, does not have pity on its enemy when it sees him in bitter poverty, and does not want to dissolve his enmity with a meal:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him drink. For by doing this you will heap hot coals upon his head, and the Lord will reward you with good things” (Prov 25:21-22).
Against the thought that is agitated against a brother due to listlessness:
“If you are angry with a brother, you will be liable to judgment.” (Matt 5:22).
Against the thought that holds a grudge and endeavors to repay evil to the one who grieved it:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Rom 12:17)
Against the thoughts that cast us into grief over the brothers’ failings:
“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
Against the thoughts of any kind that are born of anger about matters of different sorts:
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” (Eph 4:31).
Against the thoughts of anger that dare to murmur about service to the brothers:
“Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” (Phil 2:14-15)
Against the thoughts that are born of hatred and make the intellect murderous toward a brother:
“All who hate a brother are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life dwelling in them.” (1 John 3:15)
Pride is deepest delusion of course. It deludes us into believing that we have autonomy and an independence that are entirely false.
None of us has any difficulty agreeing that pride is dangerous and difficult, our problem lies that it is so deceptively difficult to recognise it. It creeps into our souls slowly and deceptively
Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk
“Pride is a most abominable sin, but hardly anyone recognizes it since it is hidden deep in the heart. Not knowing oneself is the beginning of ride. This ignorance blinds a man, and thus he becomes full of pride. Oh, that man would know himself! He would never become full of pride”.
In Maria Valtorta’s poem the Man God, Jesus warns his disciples
“it is easier for a boy or a common believer to be saved than it is for one elevated to a special task or mission. Generally the pride of their vocation overwhelms those who are called to a special destiny, and such pride opens the door to Satan and rejects God. It is easier for the stars to fall than it is for stones.” (p 534 vol 3)
The difference between pride and one of the sins of the flesh, such as lust, is that when lust attacks us, we know all about it. The early monastic tradition recognised it as the most powerful and pervasive the demonic energies; but it was not the most lethal. You always knew what it was and that it was.
The most lethal were pride and vanity, since their presence is hidden and works in secret; like a germ or a virus, working away at the invasion of our souls so effectively that we don’t even know when we have been captured.
Evagrius, John Cassian and St Augustine all saw pride as the centre of Adam’s rebellion. The desire in us to become God in God’s place, to know good and evil as God does, to live for ever by our own autonomy, finds its root in pride.
Satan’s rebellion was fuelled by pride – the refusal to take the lower place.
And so this rebellion, this constant reflex to take ourselves to the top, the place of greatest importance is ubiquitous. It happens everywhere to most of us.
But the great danger is that so often we do not see it.
I remember getting a letter from the bishop inviting me to become a Canon of the Cathedral. At once I saw it as a temptation to pride, and decided out of humility I would refuse it. And then I was told the bishop would be offended if I turned it down and see it as pride not humility. So I accepted it and found to my horror that I was a little proud of my humility.
I was caught.
But much worse than that. When a few years later, there came the invitation to move out of the Diocese, to my horror one of my first reactions was to ask the question “but if I do, – do I get to keep the title Canon”?!!
How had that happened. Somehow over the years, I had got used to the title, – it had become ‘mine’ – I had secretly fed on it without knowing, and taken comfort in the spurious importance it implied.
But I never saw it happening. It happened in secret. I only become aware by the symptoms that its possible removal produced in me. I had become proud, and hadn’t even known it.
Perhaps the reality is that we can’t stop pride finding its way under the doors we have set up to protect ourselves against it, we can only be determined to repent when we see where it has got hold of us.
Needless to say, it extends not only to our own personal importance, but the importance of our parish or denomination.
However kind we are to one another, secretly deep down, we believe all too often that we have a particular charism from God in our community or denomination that the others don’t have.
St Paul invites us to see others as better than ourselves.
But we escape this by assuming that our tradition, our group, our corner of Christendom is superior in truth or grace to that of others.
The great antidote to pride is of course the Jesus Prayer.
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God have mercy upon me a sinner.”
To be prayed as regularly as we breathe.
But just in case we get too used to ourselves as ‘a sinner’, when we find that we have secretly been sipping the poison of pride as we catch ourselves looking down on someone else, caught in sin, caught in stupidity, or worse, someone who evokes our pride because they are quite clearly looking down on us….that is the time to remember our own sins. And in the face of our own weakness and corruption, we cannot continue to protect ourselves by looking down on the other. Jesus has to protect us, and with his forgiveness.
JESUS THE PROTECTOR OF THOSE WE DISDAIN
Pride can take a number of forms, including a dislike for people we find ourselves looking down on – sometimes for reasons that entirely escape us – reasons that find their origin in the unconscious and so are hard or even impossible to examine rationally. And yet we know that look down on them in some way, even if we don’t know why.
Not long after I became a Christian at University, I remember feeling a strong sense of distaste for a fellow student in the Law faculty. I had no idea why I looked down on him, but my feelings were as strong as they were incoherent.
On day, I remember walking fairly fast down a long corridor and then turning into another narrow one to my right. I had just entered the corridor when at the same time, at the other end, walking towards me was the person I so disliked.
For a split second I hesitated, wondering if I could suddenly turn round 180 degrees and turn by back on this person to avoid having to walk towards and past them.
Just as I was about to act, I suddenly saw there was someone beside him. He was tall and dressed in white, and had a beard, and I suddenly knew he was Jesus. Jesus had his arm around the man and they walked together towards me.
I knew that if I turned on my heel and walked away, I would be turning my back on Jesus and walking away from him as well – and of course, I could not.
I walked towards them, hardly daring to lift my head and look, so ashamed was I of my readiness to turn my back on Jesus and someone he clearly loved.
St Simeon of Sarov wrote:
“You cannot be too gentle, too kind. …. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.”
PRIDE AND SELF DOUBT
There may be one thing puzzling you, as indeed it puzzled me.
How is it that the same person – sometimes we ourselves – can show signs of pride which involve looking down on other people with an air of superiority, whilst at the same time experiencing a deep lack of self confidence or self worth?
Aren’t these experiences contradictory?
There is a psychological explanation, which has to do with compensatory projection, but I will leave that to the psychologists. I am interested in the spiritual explanation; and I think it is this:
Both attitudes or outlooks are of course based on lies.
The voice that murmurs in our ear that we are better than the others, is a lying voice – it is the poison of the demon being poured into our heart through our ears. And factually, it is not true.
But equally, that voice that threatens us and tells us that we are failures and of no significance, that we are not cared for, is also a lying voice, – the poison of the demon being poured into our heart. We are in fact beloved children of the Father, so precious to Him that there were no length so of suffering He was not willing to endure to recover us.
So instead of a contradiction, what we have are two lies that produce conflicting contradictory behavior, as you might expect.
And both lies are capable of being put right by the proper recitation of Scripture.
Texts for combatting the demon voices of pride
Against the thoughts that compel us because of vainglory to make known our illustrious way of life:
“Let your neighbor praise you, and not your own mouth, a stranger and not your own lips” (Prov 27:2).
Against the soul that loves glory from human beings more than the knowledge of Christ:
“All flesh is grass, and all the glory of humanity is like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of our God endures forever”. (Isa 40:6-8).5
To the Lord concerning thoughts of glory that persisted in us and that bring down an intellect that the demons of anger, sadness, and pride have already wounded:
“Heal me, Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for you are my boast” (Jer 17:14).
Against the thoughts of vainglory that compel the soul to speak in empty words, and that endeavor to entangle the intellect in transitory affairs, by which they set in motion in us either desire or anger, or that depict in the intellect obscene visions that spoil the condition of purity that adorns and crowns our prayer:
“I tell you, on the Day of Judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt 12:36-37)
Against the soul that is troubled by vainglory and desires to learn the wisdom of the Greeks:
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God (1 Cor 3:19)
Against the thought of vainglory that wants to boast in the labor of the stable way of life:
Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself that is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends (2 Cor 10:17-18).
Against the thoughts of vainglory that seek the world and depict its glory before our eyes:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world.” (1 John 2:15).
To the Lord concerning the thought of pride that glorifies me on the pretext that by my great strength I have cast down the demons of sadness:
“Your right hand, Lord, has been glorified in strength; your right hand, Lord, has broken the enemies. And in the abundance of your glory you have broken the adversaries to pieces.” (Exod 15:6-7
Against the soul that proudly supposes that by its own strength it has conquered the demons that oppose our doing the commandments:
Do not say in your heart, “My strength and the might of my hand have made for me this great power.” But you shall remember the Lord your God, who gives you the strength.” (Deut 8:17-18)
Against the blasphemous thought that denied the free will that is in us and said that we sin and are justified not by our own will and therefore condemnation is not decreed justly:
“Look, I have set before you this day life and death, good and evil.” (Deut 30:15).
Many people here may have suffered from depression. Indeed depression has become one of the most common illnesses and diseases of our time.
Doctors are inundated with patients who suffer from a loss of hope and meaning, and are sucked into a vortex of self-loathing and passivity.
Some caused by circumstances – reactive depression.
Some caused by complex inner chemistry and wounds inflicted on the human journey that have not yet been healed.
Some depression is caused simply by the absence of God in the lives of those who have yet to turn to Him.
But there is another kind of depression that we need to recognise, which is demonic despair.
There have been times in the past when I have trapped in exhausted despair, my wife has come to asking what kind of despair it was?
She had a simple test..
She would drop a rosary into my lap and say rather curtly- ‘Pray it”!
If the despair was as despair of the flesh, I would reluctantly and exhaustedly reach out for the rosary and start mumbling the decades.
But if I reacted with anger or a brick wall of refusal, then the depression was much more a mixture, which involved the demonic. And that meant that the rosary became vital – however much the patient might get cross and refuse.
Then one needs someone to pray for us and with us, and we ourselves need to look for the inner determination not to be separated from the merciful love of God by an enemy. And know that that enemy is not ourselves, but in fact an agent from hell who longs for us to remain in the despair.
The exact mixture of flesh and spirit in any struggle may not be evident to us – but must treat our crises as both crises of flesh and spirit and bring the remedies of both to the struggle.
But what if the despair comes because you have been struggling with a particular sin – a particular weakness, and are continually being overcome?
This situation can lead to the most deep despair and complete debilitation.
One will be tempted to give up the faith – to stop trying to follow Jesus since once falls constantly flat on ones’ face with serious consequences and our will is to fractured and frail to overcome something that feels like or behaves like almost an addiction.
That is the point where we must consider that one may be in the grip of some demonic force that is in fact stronger than our will, and seek deliverance.
We might even draw on a certain righteous anger, and instead of being overwhelmed with guilt and self-loathing; resist the invitation to turn that loathing against ourselves.
Our Lord does not loathe us – he loves us enough to die for us, even if we were the only person on earth.
Our loathing and anger should be reserved for the evil that has trapped us.
The Lord knows what efforts we make to overcome our sin.
One of the most healing and helpful passages in the Bible is the place where St Paul talks about a level of failure that might drive the Christian to despair, but does not.
But I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death
Blessed be God for ever and ever, we are forgiven; but we are not yet delivered.
And so, confident that we are not condemned we turn to the Church and those who have power and authority to combat demonic strength where we ourselves have been overcome. And for us of course there will be the opportunity to ask for deliverance, or a greater deliverance than we have yet known on Sunday afternoon at 4.00.
REPENTANCE and DELIVERANCE
All sins can be and on asking, will be forgiven, except one.
The sin against the Holy Spirit.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
The sin against the Holy Spirit takes place when knowing something to be good, it is miscalled as evil.
There can be no forgiveness because at that point when has identified completely with the lie of Satan which is to deliberately miscall good evil – not as a mistake but as a deliberate perversion of reality and the moral order.
But for everything else there is forgiveness.
All sins will be forgiven the children of man,
All your sins will be forgiven.
In the Messages we find our Lord saying that all He needs from us is our repentance.
What is repentance? – it is a simple turning to the light with our hands open for help. The determination yet again to step away from whatever comes between us and our Lord. Is there any limit to the times we turn? None. Every day, every hour, we are invited to turn. And each time we turn we escape condemnation – we escape evil, we escape our lower selves.
There is no limit to forgiveness.
There is no limit to our turning.
and I will respond to your plea and remind you that flesh and blood cannot inherit Our Kingdom, for what is perishable cannot inherit what lasts for ever; do not worry, I will heal your guilt since you desire it and I will flow in you as a river, refreshing your aridity and sterility; your abandonment to Me is the only way together with your repentance I could transfigure your mind to have the mind of Christ and discover Our Will; to penetrate God’s motives or understand His methods without Me being in you is impossible, but I can open the door to knowledge through My transcendent Light in you, for I, the formless One, will take form in your spirit; as a resplendent Sun I will array My Light in you and revive what is dead, filling you with virtues;
In the face of our own limitations and failure, the Lord whose mercy and justice balance each other, invites us to keep watch – to equip ourselves with armour of God. As St Paul writes in Ephesians 6.13
Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,
As we balance the call to holiness, the call to stay alert, the power of Scripture in the face of the demonic voices, the call to strengthen our will and our continuous failures, we turn to the Lord in the Messages for the last word:
why am I visiting the graveyards and opening the tombs in search of the dead? why am I calling you to a Divine union and to a spiritual marriage?
I will tell you why: even if you are “damaged” as you said, Vassula, there is hope left for reparation; this is what it is all about; I come to save the sinner; and as I said before; for men this is impossible; for God everything is possible; in other words, I am infinitely rich in Grace and it is by Grace you can be saved; I do not desire the death of the sinner; I am the Resurrection and I desire that all of you live in My Light; for this reason I descend on earth through these Odes and by other means too, to resurrect you, you who allowed yourselves to fall from Grace into the tomb and lie now putrefying by the millions, due to sin…
in My boundless compassion, I said in the Courts of Heaven: “I do not wish to watch endlessly and forever the sinners’ death, grieving, but rather that he returns to Me and lives;” …it is time, yes indeed, to separate the darnel from the wheat; I made an oath then and said:
“I will give them, through the power of My Holy Spirit, the Grace for their hidden self to grow strong to anyone who responds to My graceful Call, so that they may live in Me, and I may live in them through faith; then planted in love and built on love they will be raised to obtain the utter fullness of Myself;”
thus, I have responded to your statement, Vassula; I said in My infinite Mercy: “I will shed light in this irrational creation to enlighten their minds and renew them by a spiritual revolution; I, Myself, will lead them into this renewal of self and mind, leading each one in the goodness and holiness of the truth; My desire to save everyone burns in My Heart; I will not turn My Face away but teach each one and re-educate them; (Feb 2003)
O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! For Your own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people are called by Your name.