In my last blog post, I spoke of two categories of trials discussed by St. Isaac in homily 42: trials that are the fruit of pride and trials that are allowed by God to create longing and are evidence of one drawing near to God. Before I get into what St. Isaac says about patience and humility at the end of homily 42, I want correct a potential misunderstanding some of you might have based on St. Isaac’s use of two categories. The mistake modern people might make is to assume that because St. Isaac defined two categories of trials and temptations, he therefore understands these two categories to be the only categories and that all trials and tribulations of necessity fall into either one or the other of these categories. This is not how St. Isaac nor the people he was writing for in the seventh century would have understood this use of categories.
For St. Isaac, categories are useful to point toward mystical realities, but are not used to define or limit those realities. So in one of his homilies, St. Isaac can speak of two categories of trials, and in another homily speak of three or four quite different categories of trials. His purpose is not to define or delimit the kinds or purposes of trials; but rather, his purpose it to point to a mystical reality that is experienced in the spiritual life, a reality that cannot be defined or delimited with words, but a reality that he can nonetheless point toward using words and categories. So when St. Isaac speaks of trials as either coming from the fruit of pride or evidencing our drawing near to God, he is pointing toward an experience those pursuing the spiritual life in Christ sometimes have. That is, sometimes we are aware that the trial we are experiencing has come upon us as a result of our arrogance or pride, leading us to repentance. Other times, we are unaware of any specific repentance necessary on our part, and the trials merely constrain and limit us, leading us to deeper longing for God. Are there other ways we experience and learn from and grow from trials? Certainly. But in homily 42, St. Isaac is specifically contrasting these two in order to help the reader understand certain spiritual experiences he or she might encounter, experiences that may even appear contradictory, like joy and fear, or different sorts of trials coming from different sources and evidencing different aspects of one’s relationship with God.
St. Isaac begins wrapping up homily 42 with the following words,
“Hear yet another consideration. Every adversity and affliction, if not accompanied by patience, produces double torment; for a man’s patience casts off distress, while faintness of heart is the mother of anguish. Patience is the mother of consolation and is a certain strength which is usually born of largeness of heart. It is hard for a man to find this strength in his tribulations without a gift from God received through the ardent pursuit of prayer and the outpouring of his tears.”
Patience, according to St. Isaac, can cut in half the adversity and affliction one experiences in trials, regardless of the source. Whether the source of the trial is my own sin and pride, or “a blow inflicted by divine love,” as he earlier puts it, if I accept and endure the trial with patience, the suffering is cut in half. St. Isaac contrasts faintness of heart with largeness of heart. In this homily, largeness of heart seems to be a synonym for humility of heart which it gives birth to patience and is a gift from God received through ardent pursuit of prayer and the outpouring of tears. Largeness of heart has to do with a humility that is able to accept and even be aware of the nearness of God even in the midst of a painful or difficult trial—even if that trial has come upon me as a result of my own sin and stupidity. It is a humility that “with a thankful heart [is] patient in evils for His love’s sake.” In other words, it is a humility both given as a gift from God and born out of a love for God and faith in God that is so intense that even evils can be endured patiently and with thankfulness to God because one knows that God will use even evil things to perfect our souls.
What? How can the evil that we suffer perfect our souls? Is St. Isaac saying that God causes evil? No. But he is saying that God allows evil to come upon us and that by enduring that suffering with thankfulness, patience and love, we can be perfected, or made mature in Christ. This is a mystery. It is not reasonable or logical. It’s completely ironic. Therefore to complain that this doesn’t make sense or isn’t fair doesn’t help at all. St. Isaac isn’t explaining a theory of Christian maturity, he is describing an experience—an experience that crucifies even our mind. And the very first step toward this kind of humility is to acknowledge that you don’t have it. It is only through the “ardent pursuit of prayer and the outpouring of tears” in the midst of the irrational and unfair evil that has come upon us that we begin to experience the grace and gift of humility that produces patience which, St. Isaac says, cuts our suffering in half.
St. Isaac also has a few things to say about faint-heartedness, the opposite of largeheartednens or humility. He says that sometimes God allows a person to fall into faint-heartedness which, instead of patience,
“begets in him a mighty force of despondency, wherein he feels his soul suffocated. This is a foretaste of Gehenna. From this there is unleashed upon him: the spirit of distraction (from which ten thousand trials gush forth); confusion; wrath; blasphemy; protesting and bewailing one’s lot; perverted thoughts; wandering from place to place; and the like.” St. Isaac goes on to say, “If you should ask me what the cause of these things is, I answer that it is you yourself, for the reason that you have not taken pains to find the remedy for them.”
And so, St. Isaac tells us that when we experience these things—wrath; blasphemy; protesting and bewailing one’s lot; and wandering from place to place (perhaps looking for a spirit-filled elder who can tell us how to get out of our situation), these symptoms particularly hit home to me—when we experience these it is likely that we have fallen into faint-heartedness. And although God may have allowed faint-heartedness to come upon us, we continue to experience faint-heartedness because we have not sought the remedy. What is the remedy for the faint-heartedness producing such Gehenna-like despondency in all of its manifestations? St. Isaac answers: “The remedy for them all is one, and therein, in [your] very hand, a man can find immediate consolation for his soul. And what is it? Humility of heart. Without this, no man can destroy the barrier [set up by] these evils, nay rather, he will see them triumph over him.”
Humility of heart is the key. It is the largeness of heart that produces patience and reduces anguish and distress in trials. Listen to St. Isaac’s words:
“If you wish, enter into [the realm of humility] and you will see how it disperses your wickedness. For in proportion to your humility you are given patience in your woes; and in proportion to your patience, the burden of your afflictions is made lighter and you will find consolation; in proportion to your consolation, your love of God increases; and in proportion to your love, your joy in the Holy Spirit is magnified.”
This humility, or largeness of heart, is a gift that comes from God that one receives through “ardent pursuit of prayer and the outpouring of his tears.” It’s not something—at least in my experience—that one can just decide or make happen. Trying to be humble generally only produces self-consciousness, self-evaluation, and ultimately pride mixed with any or all of the following: despondency, anger, blaming God, blaming others and delusion (that pride can be linked with all of these may seem ironic, but as already noted, the spiritual life is full of irony). And so then, how do we get humility? In my experience, asking God for humility is a rather painful route. Instead of asking specifically for humility, I have found it most helpful to ask God for mercy. I ask God for mercy acknowledging that I am not humble, that I am not patient, and that the evils that come upon me in the form of trials and tribulations come largely from my pride and that I am too spiritually dull to know what to do about them—except to beg for His help.
For St. Isaac, the spiritual life is a life of transformation: transformation from being a stranger to God to being a son of God. Alluding to Hebrews 12:5, where sonship is linked to chastisement, St. Isaac too says that patient endurance of trials and tribulations is the very thing that matures us and perfects our souls. The “way of escape” from trials that St. Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 10:13 is not an avoidance of the trial—for even the text of 1 Corinthians says, “so that you may bear it.” Rather, according to St. Isaac, the way of escape is patient endurance to the perfecting of our souls, which is the fruit of humility, which is a gift from God to those who beg His help.
I’ll end today with St. Isaacs words. This is the final paragraph of homily 42:
Once men have truly become His sons, our tenderly compassionate Father does not take away their temptations from them when it is His pleasure to ‘make a way of escape,’ but instead He gives His sons patience in their trials. All these good things are given into the hand of their patience for the perfecting of their souls. May Christ God deem us worthy by His grace with a thankful heart to be patient in evils for His love’s sake. Amen.