Below I continue my series from St. Justin Popovich. This is my favorite article I have ever read on faith because St. Justin makes it so practical. Faith is far more than an ascent to a certain philosophical position, but is the fruit of the struggle to reach our first step of union with God.
It is by the ascesis of faith that the treatment and cure of a soul which is sick with the passions is begun. Once faith begins to live in a man, the passions begin to be uprooted from his soul. But until the soul becomes intoxicated with faith in God, until it comes to feel faith’s power, it can neither be healed of the passions nor overcome the material world. There is both a negative side to the ascesis of faith, freedom from sinful matter, and a positive side, oneness with God.
The soul, which was dispersed by the senses among the things of this world, is brought back to itself by the ascesis of faith, by fasting from material things and by devoting itself to a constant remembrance of God. This is the foundation of all good things.
Freedom from enslavement to sinful matter is essential for advancement in the spiritual life. The beginning of this new way of life is found in the concentration of one’s thoughts on God, in incessant pondering on the words of God, and in a life of poverty.
Through faith the mind, which was previously dispersed among the passions, is concentrated, freed from sensuality, and endowed with peace and humility of thought. When it lives by the senses in a sensual world, the mind is sick. With the help of faith, however, the mind is delivered from the prison of this world, where it has been stifled by sin, and enters into the new age, where is breathes in a wondrous new air.
The sleep of the mind is as dangerous as death, and it is therefore essential to rouse the mind by faith to the performance of spiritual works, by which man will overcome himself and drive out the passions. Drive out self, and the enemy will be driven from your side.
In the ascesis of faith, man is asked to act according to a paradox that denies understanding: Be dead in your life, and you will live after death. By faith the mind is healed and acquires wisdom. The soul becomes wise when it stops consorting shamelessly with promiscuous thoughts. Love of the body is a sign of unbelief. Faith frees the intellect from the categories of the senses and sobers it by means of fasting, by pondering on God, and by vigils.
Intemperance and a full stomach cloud the mind, distract it, and disperse it among fantasies and passions. The knowledge of God cannot be found in a body that loves pleasure. It is from the seed of fasting that the blade of a healthy understanding grows – and it is from satiety that debauchery comes, and impurity from excess.
The thoughts and desires of the flesh are like a restless flame in a man, and the way to healing is to plunge the intellect into the ocean of the mysteries of Holy Scripture. Unless it is freed from earthly possessions, the soul cannot be freed from disturbing thoughts, nor feel peace of mind without dying to the senses. The passions darken the thoughts and blind the mind. Troubled, chaotic thoughts arise from an abuse of the stomach.
Shame and the fear of God steady the tumult of the mind; the lack of this shame and this fear disturb the balance of the understanding, making it fickle and unstable. The mind is only on a firm foundation if it keeps the Lord’s commandments and is ready to endure suffering and affliction. If it is enslaved by the things of life, it is darkened. Collecting himself through faith, a man awakens his intellect toward God, and by prayerful silence cleanses his mind and overcomes the passions. The soul is restored to health by silence. It is therefore necessary to train oneself to silence – and this is a labor that brings sweetness to the heart. It is through silence that a man reaches peace from unwanted thoughts.
Faith brings peace to the intellect and, in bringing it, uproots rebellious thoughts. Sin is the source of restlessness and strife in the thoughts and is also the source of man’s struggle against heaven and with other men. Be at peace with yourself, and you will bring peace to heaven and to earth. Until faith appears, the intellect is dispersed among the things of this world; it is by faith that this fragmentation of the intellect is overcome. The wandering of the thoughts is provoked by the demon of harlotry, as is the wandering of the eyes by the spirit of uncleanness.
By faith the intellect is confirmed in pondering God. The way of salvation is that of the constant remembrance of God. The intellect separated from remembrance of God is like a fish out of water. The freedom of a true man consists in his freedom from the passions, in his resurrection with Christ, and in a joyous soul.
The passions can only be overcome by the practice of the virtues, and every passion must be fought to the death. Faith is the first and chief weapon in the struggle with the passions, for faith is the light of the mind that drives away the darkness of the passions and the strength of the intellect that banishes sickness from the soul.
Faith bears within itself not only its own principle and substance, but the principle and substance of all the other virtues – developing as they do one from the other and encircling one another like the annual rings of a tree. If faith can be said to have a language, that language is prayer.
The above text is from Saint Justin Popovich’s essay The Theory of Knowledge of Saint Isaac The Syrian. This is the second of several installments. I am splitting up his essay into short reflections. Text in italic font is where St. Justin directly quotes St. Isaac; most of it is a summary of St. Isaac’s teachings.
The quoted text is taken from Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, which is a collection of essays by St. Justin Popovich, compiled and translated by Fr. Asterios Gerostergios.