“So there you are on the heights, surveying the earth below and the sky above. Your intellect [nous] now begins to feel its freedom and wants to fly.”
I enjoy reading spiritual literature from holy people in the Orthodox Christian tradition. I like it because I often catch glimpses of myself, of my own struggles and my own triumphs. In many ways, books have been like a surrogate spiritual father to me. However, there is also a great danger in reading books for spiritual guidance. Often—actually, just about always in my experience—the writers of spiritual books, especially the classical spiritual books of the Orthodox tradition such as The Ascetic Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John of Sinai, and the writings found in the Philokalia, these were written to be read by monastic men and women who have already attained to a high degree of spiritual life. They were written, we might say, for those who have already attained the foothills and have now set their eyes on the heights.
But what about us, what about us who dwell on the plain, both those of us plain dwellers in the world and in monasteries, what about us? Why would we read such literature written for those so far ahead of us and what are the dangers of reading such literature? As far as I can see, there are two dangers, both of which I have struggled with—the second more than the first. The first danger is to read of the spiritual heights of holy men and women and lacking a flesh and blood spiritual father who will help us see who we really are, we read of these sublime experiences with God and think that we have already attained to them. The second is just the opposite: having read of extreme ascetical struggle and the profundity of the encounter with God these men and women experienced, we despair that we will ever really discipline ourselves at all and we wonder if we have really ever actually encountered God at all.
The first danger, thinking that you have already—or just about—attained to the heights of the life with God described by the Holy Fathers, this danger comes about because first of all we think we understand what these fathers are talking about because we can define (to our own satisfaction) the meaning of the words they use. We can do this because we find certain parallels to what they say in our own experience. And I don’t think we are always mistaken when we think this. There is a sort of scale to spiritual realities and our experience of them, somewhat like scales on a well-tuned piano. That is, starting at one end of the piano we strike certain notes, shrill and of small duration—but notes nonetheless. And as we move across the keyboard, we encounter the same notes, but with each octave offering a deeper experience, a longer reverberation, a less shrill, but more deeply moving encounter. So yes, even reading of very holy monks and nuns who have disciplined themselves to the extreme and who have walked with God in the heights—even while still in the body—yes, even reading these we can sometimes see parallels to our own spiritual experience on the other end of the keyboard.
The Life of St. Seraphim of Sarov is an excellent example. I will certainly never experience the self discipline that he experienced nor the spiritual heights, but still reading about his life can inspire me where I’m at. I have never knelt on a rock to pray—much less for three years, outdoors, and during the Russian winter. However, I do get tired kneeling at the Kneeling Vespers of Pentecost. My feet do get sore standing for prayers. Sometimes, when I endure this discomfort, I experience a kind of spiritual high, it is as if my body finally submits at some level and I stop thinking about it. Then, maybe only for a brief moment, I sometimes feel a kind of spiritual freedom, a moment before God, a moment in which I am not just saying the words of prayer, but I am somehow actually before God, somehow actually entering into a prayer that is beyond saying the prayers. St. Seraphim can inspire me, and in a very scaled down sense, I may indeed be experiencing some small part on my end of the keyboard of what he experienced on his end of the keyboard.
So I don’t think it is necessarily arrogant to think or say that you have experienced in some small way the life with God described in the Philokalia or described by St. John of Sinai. The problem is when we forget where we are on the scale. It’s like knowing where you are on a hike up a mountain. Northeast of Palm Springs is Mt. San Jacinto (Mount Jack, we used to call it). Mount Jack is about 11,000 feet tall (3,300 meters). I have climbed Mount Jack a few times, but never all the way from the valley. I have also hiked the foothills of the same mountain, and there is one thing I can tell you: the experience of walking up a foothill is in many ways very similar to walking up to the peak. It is very similar and very different. Walking up hill is hard work whether you are starting in the valley going up the foothills or already in the heights walking to the peak. However the dangers of the foothills are different from the dangers of the peak.
In the foothills there are cacti and various venomous snakes and no water. In the heights, the air is thin and cool, the weather can change quickly and dramatically, and a slip at many points means certain death. Nonetheless, an experienced hiker in the foothills could learn a lot about hiking foothills from the stories of men and women who have scaled the peaks. However, just because, for example, Archimandrite Aimilianos speaks of a spiritual height where the passions cease to bother you—we might liken the passions to the snakes and cacti of the foothills—that doesn’t mean that I no longer need to be on my guard against besetting sins and passions that arise in me. Although I am inspired by the mountain climbers, I cannot forget that I am still just rising out of the plain. I have to stay vigilant against the dangers of the plain and of the foothills.
And yet, sometimes these dangers, the snakes and the cacti, the passions and my lazy, selfish tendencies, are sometimes so much on my mind, that I forget to look up to see the mountains before me. When I am hiking in the desert my eyes are continually on the ground. Rattlesnakes, and the much more poisonous sidewinders, are common. There are “Spanish bayonets,” a yucca-like plant with poky leaves that grow near the ground and are so strong and sharp they can pierce a leather boot—experience is speaking here. The dangers of hiking out of the valley and into the foothills are many. If I am not careful, I can despair of ever getting out of the valley, of ever walking closer with God, of ever even seeing the heights, much less climbing them myself.
This is the second danger of reading spiritual literature. When I compare what I read with what I actually experience, my life with God seems so paltry as to perhaps not exist at all. Sometimes I wonder, since my own relationship with God is so far from what I read about, I wonder if I really have a relationship with God at all. St. Seraphim prayed kneeling on a rock for three years, I moan if I kneel for ten minutes. Archimandrite Aiminianos speaks of “the highest intellection,” when “just as you can look down from the window of an airplane and see the world you’ve left below, so now you look down onto the self you’ve left behind, while your intellect ascends to the heights.” But for me, the highest point of my spiritual journey is to experience a moment’s peace, a moment when I am not besieged by tempting or tormenting or just plain distracting thoughts. For me the Jesus prayer is not, as some spiritual writers have said, a warm up leading into wordless ecstasy in prayer. For me the Jesus prayer is a club by which I beat back the coyotes and the snakes and the prickly pear cactus—my impassioned thoughts in all their forms—that seem always to be closing in on me. This is my spiritual life. No heights for me, just a step by step struggle to make it into the foothills.
But what I have to constantly call to mind as I slog through the sand of despondency is that God is with me here, even in the desert, even before I reach the foothills (or in the many sandy patches among the foothills). I would not be longing for the mountains, if God were not already with me, if the Holy Spirit were not already drawing me. Every now and then a vista opens up. Every now and then you can lift your eyes and see something a little higher than yourself, something that helps you to keep on going.
You know, it’s a funny thing. The further you are from the mountain, the easier it is to see its peak. Once you get close, once you get close enough to start climbing the foothills, you are too close to see the peak any more—except for very occasional glimpses. All you can see most of the time is the next hill, the next big barrier between you and your goal of drawing closer to God. And so sometimes it helps to read the stories of those who have been to the peak. Even though I am no where near the peak myself, even though I am a spiritual infant, a beginner who seldom looks up because he is too often encountering snakes and cactus, even though I am not very near God in my heart, still I know that I can grow closer to God because others have. I can climb a little higher because others have been to the top, so I know it’s possible; it’s possible to really know God, to walk with God and to be transfigured like Christ by the Holy Spirit’s presence. I know it’s possible because others have been there. And that helps me to keep on climbing.