A small affliction borne for God’s sake is better before God than a great work performed without tribulation; for affliction willingly borne brings to light the proof of love….
St. Isaac The Syrian: Homily 36
Someone has famously said, the exact attribution is under dispute, that it is not the mountain that wears us out but the grain of sand in our shoe. St. Isaac is, I think, saying something similar. In our journey to Christlikeness, it’s not so much, perhaps not at all, the great accomplishments or the visible achievements that matter, that work in us the transfiguration from the old man to the new, from the sinner to the saint. What matters, what makes the biggest difference is how we handle the small afflictions, what we do with the little annoyances, the nagging loved one, the lingering illness, the emotionally trying circumstance that never seems to go away, the grain of sand in our shoe.
In Homily 62, St. Isaac summarizes his famous three degrees of knowledge in an interesting way. Moving backward from love, from the highest degree of the knowledge of God, St. Isaac says:
Love is the offspring of knowledge, and knowledge is the offspring of health of soul; health of soul is a strength that comes from prolonged patience.
Flipping the order around, it may be a little easier to understand what St. Isaac is saying. Beginning with prolonged patience, one comes to acquire health of soul. As one’s soul (that is, all of the immaterial aspects of our person), as one’s soul becomes well, as it becomes more healthy, then one is able to perceive and know better and more clearly God who has always been present. “The Holy Spirit,” we say in our Orthodox prayers, “is everywhere present and filling all things.” And then there is the deposit or seal of the Holy Spirit that is additionally present in all Baptized Christians. God is already there for us to know, but because of the sickness brought on by the passions, we are unable to perceive God very well, and thus unable to know God very well. However, St. Isaac is saying that when we begin to accept long suffering, when we willingly bear “small afflictions” with “prolonged patience,” we actually put to death our passions and thus bring health to our soul, and this is what enables us to begin to really know God, the God who has been there all along but whom we could not perceive clearly because of the blindness brought on by the driving fears, lusts and angers that tend to control us both consciously and unconsciously.
As we begin to grow in our knowledge of God, St. Isaac tells us, we begin to really love: love both God and neighbour. This knowledge of God is not a knowledge about God, not what most Protestant and Catholic Christians would refer to as a “theological” knowledge. Rather, this knowledge of God that St. Isaac is talking about is a personal knowledge, a knowledge of encounter, an intuitive knowledge based on experience. It is what Orthodox writers usually mean when they speak of theological knowledge. It’s not something that one can get from a book—although many saints and saintly people have written about their theological knowledge. One can read, for example, St. Isaac the Syrian all day long. You can memorize him. You can memorize the Bible and the Divine Liturgy too for that matter, but knowing about is not the same as knowing, not in the Orthodox Christian tradition. And knowing, genuine theology and encounter with God, comes—at least according to St. Isaac—by cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to heal our souls. And how does the Holy Spirit heal our souls? Well at least one way is by giving us opportunity to practice prolonged patience, to bear small afflictions willingly.
In many icons of St. Anthony the Great, he is depicted holding a scroll with his famous words, “I used to fear God, but now I love Him.” St. Isaac too speaks of a journey from fear to love. In this same homily (62), he speaks of the first degree of knowledge in which one fears death. In this first, animal-like, unnatural state, one is negligent of things concerning the soul and lives driven only by animal urges and demonic phantasies. Here, fear of death plays a very important role in helping a person to begin to control him or her self, to begin to choose suffering, to choose prolonged patience. This, in St. Isaac’s picture of the three degrees of knowledge, can be the beginning of one’s turning to God, the beginning of one’s preparation to encounter God. Now fear of death does not merely refer to fear of the end of life, but it can include the fear of all sorts of loss, fear of the thousands of little deaths we encounter along the way to our final death.
There is, of course, an unhealthy fear of death that paralyzes. This is not what St. Isaac is talking about. He is talking about a fear of death, when engaged well, that can be the beginning of a turn that prepares one to meet God. For example, a woman might get a word from a doctor that if she doesn’t stop smoking she will be dead in five years. Or a man might realize that if he doesn’t change his drinking habits, he will end up a thorough alcoholic. Fearing death, both this woman and man may begin to “willingly bear” the prolonged patience necessary to discipline themselves and change their habits. And this, St. Isaac says, can begin to heal their souls in such a way that opens them to perceive more than just this life. St. Isaac says that as the soul heals, one becomes more like a natural human being, a human being in control of him or her self. And this, St. Isaac says, is where the second fear begins to reveal itself: the fear of God, or the fear of judgement.
However, there is nothing automatic about the movement from the fear of death to the fear of God. There are many inner games we play with ourselves. There are all sorts of ways one can sidetrack the movement from fear of death to fear of God. One of the most famous sidetracks is pride. Having overcome an over-eating problem or a drinking problem or an addiction or bad habit of one sort or another, instead of being humbly thankful for one’s new life, the reformed person becomes puffed up at his or her success. In such cases, the person may be worse off than before, from a spiritual perspective. And this pride can take on a whole range of hues and tones so that it does not appear as pride, so that it seems to be nothing more than so-called self-esteam or a new passion to be better and better at fitness, or healthy eating or even preaching the evils of self indulgence. Pride hides behind many masks. Then, rather than pride, new found opportunities for lust may distract one’s mind (opportunities that were not real possibilities when you were 150 lbs overweight, or when you were throwing all of your money away in casinos every month). Or instead of lust or pride, one may remain trapped in the fear of death, fear that you may not be able to keep up the discipline, fear that sooner or later you will fall back again into the same addictions or bad habits.
There are many ways to sidetrack this movement from fear of death to fear of God to love of God. Nevertheless, St. Isaac tells us that by learning to control our passion-driven bodies, we can begin to heal our souls. Thankfulness is a key aspect of this process because thankfulness helps deliver us from many of the snares that would stop our progress to the fear of God or the fear of judgement. St. Isaac says elsewhere that the fear of God begins with an understanding, perhaps a mere logical deduction based on observing the natural world, that there is a God and that before this God we will all have to give an account for our life. And it is this fear of God that motivates us to begin to reach out, to begin to long to know this God. And this longing to know God further heals our minds and prepares us to actually begin to encounter and know God. On the one hand, from the human perspective, all of this preparation through the embrace of self discipline leading to the fear of God leading to a longing for God gets us ready to perceive God. But on the other hand, from the divine perspective, nothing a human being can do forces God’s hand or makes God reveal Himself. When the time is right, when everything is ready, then God comes to us. God comes to us very seldom as a rushing wind or a bright light, but God comes to us most often as a gentle breeze, as an apprehension of some profound beauty resonating deeply in our psyche, in our souls. God comes to us and if we are ready, we perceive Him in some small way, in a way that we can never forget or deny, but almost always in a way that we cannot explain or defend.
And this, St. Isaac would say, is the beginning of love, the beginning of love for God and the beginning of the possibility of God-like love of neighbour. And if we stay the course, if we continue in the willful bearing of small afflictions for Christ’s sake, if we continue then the result will be sanctity, the result will be love of God and neighbour that is so great that some might call it saintly. Of course, it will not feel very saintly to the ones who experience it. The saints never see themselves as saintly. They don’t generally see themselves at all. What they see is a Great God who loves all mankind. What they feel is a broken world full of apparently needless suffering. What they focus on, when they look at themselves at all, is the grain of sand in their shoe, the small affliction that they continue to bear willingly for Christ’s sake. And of course, you don’t have to be a saint to start this journey. It is God who makes saints. What I can do, though, is bear my small affliction for God’s sake. And this, at least is a beginning.