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Category: St. John Climacus

The importance of discernment

by Andrea Elizabeth

It is apparent in these patristics quotes on the discernment of thoughts that taking thoughts captive is of the highest importance. For example:

It is discernment which in Scripture is described as they eye and the lamp of the body. This is what the Saviour says, ‘our eye is the light of your body, and if your eye is sound then there is light in your whole body. But if your eye is diseased then your entire body will be in darkness’ (Matthew 6:22-23). This eye sees through all the thoughts and actions of a man, examining and illuminating everything which we must do. And if it is not sound in a man, that is, if it is not fortified by good judgment and by well-founded knowledge, if it is deluded by error and by presumption, this makes for darkness in our entire body. The clear thrust of the mind as well as everything we do will be shadowed and we shall be wrapped in the blindness of sin and the blackness of passion. ‘If the light within you is darkness,’ says the Saviour, ‘what a darkness that will be’ (Matthew 6:23). For let no one doubt that our thoughts and our works, which originate from the deliberative processes of discernment, will be caught up in the shadows of sin if ever the good judgment of our heart goes astray or is taken over by the night of ignorance.” St John Cassian, “Conferences,” (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 61-63, (a conversation between Abba Moses and John Cassian)

So, then, the four kinds of discernment to which I have been referring will be necessary to us. First, as to material, is it true gold or spurious? Second, we must reject as fake and counterfeit coinage those thoughts which have the deceptive appearance of piety. They bear a false and not the genuine image of the king. Then we must be able to detect and to abhor those which impose a viciously heretical stamp on the precious gold of Scripture. This is not the effigy of the true king but of a tyrant. Finally, we must drive away thoughts which are like underweight coins, dangerous and inadequate, thoughts which have lost weight and value because of the rust of vanity, thoughts which do not measure up to the standard of the ancients. St. John Cassian, The Conferences

Most times we consider our own judgment trustworthy. We must trust it somewhat or we would be paralyzed. Since discernment is listed as spiritual gift, I suppose it must be asked for with the view that improvement is always needed.

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True Theology

by Andrea Elizabeth

Metropolitan Hierotheos speaks of Theology as a Therapeutic Science in Chapter 2, page 32:

St. John Climacus introduces true theology in many places in his spritiually delightful ‘Ladder’. “Total purity is the foundation for theology.” “When a man’s senses are perfectly united to God, then what God has said is somehow mysteriously clarified. But when there is no union of this kind, then it is extremely difficult to speak about God”. On the contrary, the man who does not actually know God speaks about Him only in “probabilities”. Indeed according to patristic teaching it is very bad to speak in conjectures about God, because it leads a person to delusion. This saint knows how “the theology of demons” develops in us. In vainglorious hearts which have not previously been purified by the operation of the Holy Spirit, the unclean demons “give us lessons in the interpretation of scripture”. Therefore a slave of passion should not “dabble in theology”.

I love how Orthodoxy explains things more in an inclusive “and” way instead of “either/or”. He is obviously not saying that to know God, one should not listen to or read theological works or that one should enter in a lonely extreme ascetic form of repentance and apophatic isolation. He is saying that to understand what God has revealed through the Scriptures and the Church, one should simultaneously be engaging in practices of repentance and purification while being externally instructed. Then the more one is synergistically purified, the more one will internally know God. We work on emptying ourselves of passions, with God’s help, and offer up the newly cleared space to be filled with His presence and instruction.

The saints received “divine things without thought”, and according to the Fathers, they theologised not in an Aristotlean way through thinking, but “in the manner of the Apostles”, that is to say through the operation of the Holy Spirit. If a person has not been cleansed of passions, especially fantasy, beforehand, he is unable to converse with God or to speak about God, since a nous “forming notions is incapable of theology”. The saints lived a theology “written by the Spirit”.

If my mind was a clean slate I suppose I could be in a more receptive mode to learn of God without “forming notions” which sounds to me like reasoning. Orthodoxy is different in many ways from the Baptist/Calvinist/Methodist/non-denominational theology that I came to it with, that my mind has to really switch gears to accommodate the change. But perhaps it’s like how relationships are non-dialectic except when dealing with fallenness, Theology is strictly by personal revelation except when it is dealing with error, then we have to work through identifying and diagnosing our error, through God’s mercy working in our minds. But once the error has been purposefully cleared out, room is made for Truth to be imparted.

Next the Metropolitan offers us St. Maximus,

We find the same teaching in the works of St. Maximus the Confessor. When a person lives by practical philosophy, which is repentance and cleansing from passions, “he advances in moral understanding”. When he experiences theoria, “he advances in spiritual knowledge”. In the first case he can discriminate between virtues and vices; the second case, theoria, “leads the participant to the inner qualities of incorporeal and corporeal things”. St. Maximus goes on to say that man is “granted the grace of theology when, carried on wings of love” in theoria and “with the help of the Holy Spirit, he discerns – as far as is possible with the human nous – the qualities of God. Theology, the knowledge of God, is unfolded to the person who has attained theoria. Indeed in another place the same Father says that a person who always “concentrates on the inner life” not only becomes restrained, long-suffering, kind and humble, but “he will also be able to contemplate, theologise and pray”. Here too theology is closely connected with theoria and prayer.

It sometimes confuses me that such an emphasis is placed on personal prayer, but I have too look at the lives of St. John, St. Maximus, and to the Metropolitan which seem to me deeply involved in the physical, Sacramental, Orthodox Church, whose members, I believe, are their audience. Our whole lives become prayer, whether in Church, at work, or during our free time.