The Sickness of the Organs of Understanding
Analyzing man by his empirical gifts, St. Isaac the Syrian finds that his organs of understanding are sick. Evil is a sickness of soul, whence all the organs of understanding are made sick. Evil has its perceptions, the passions, and the passions are illnesses of the soul. Evil and the passions are not natural to the soul; they are accidents, adventitious, and intrusive, an unnatural addition to the soul.
What are the passions in themselves? They are a certain hardness or insensitivity of being. Their causes are to be found in the the things of life themselves. The passions are the desire for wealth and amassing of goods, for ease and bodily comfort; they are thirst for honor and the exercise of power; they are luxury and frivolity; they are the desire for glory from men and fear for one’s own body.
All these passions have one common name – the world. The world means carnal conduct and a carnal mind. The passions are the attacks of the world on a man by means of the things of the world. Divine grace is the only power capable of repulsing them. When the passions make their home in man, they uproot his soul. They confuse the mind , filling it with fantastic forms, images, and desires, so that his thoughts are disturbed and filled with fantasy.
The world is a prostitute, which, by means of its soul-destroying desires, beguiles the soul, undermines its virtues, and destroys its God-given purity. Then, the soul, having itself become impure and a prostitute, gives birth to impure knowledge.
The Healing of the Organs of Understanding
St. Isaac gives a precise diagnosis of the sickness of the soul and of its organs of understanding, and just as clearly he gives the remedy, offering it categorically and with conviction. Since the passions are a sickness of the soul, the soul can only be healed by purification from the passions and from evil. The virtues are the health of the soul, as the passions are its sickness.
The virtues are the remedies that progressively eliminate sickness from the soul and from the organs of understanding. This is a slow process, demanding much effort and great patience.
The soul is made drunk by the passions but can recover its health if it will use the virtues as the path to sobriety. The virtues, however, are woven through with sorrow and afflictions. St. Isaac says that every virtue is a cross, and even that sorrows and afflictions are the source of the virtues.
He therefore expressly advocates a love of oppression and sorrow, so that by them a man may be freed from the things of this world and have a mind that is detached from the world’s confusion. For man must first free himself from the material world in order to be born of God. Such is the economy of grace; such, too, is the economy of knowledge.
If a man resolves to treat and heal his soul, must first apply himself to a careful examination of his whole being. He must learn to distinguish good from evil, the things of God from those of the devil, for discernment is the greatest of the virtues. The acquisition of the virtues is a progressive and organic process: one virtue follows another. One depends on the other; one is born of the other: Every virtue is the mother of the next. Among the virtues there is not only an ontological order, but also a chronological one. The first among them is faith.
The above text is from Saint Justin Popovich’s essay “The Theory of Knowledge of Saint Isaac The Syrian.” This is the first 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.