Building Strong Spiritual Muscles for the Fight

18 05 2011

I can’t resist another lengthy quote from the book The Illumined Heart. There is so much here: on sin, sinful desires, how to deal with them, spiritual warfare, spiritual discipline, the character of God the Father, the Cross & Resurrection, holiness, and a proper understanding of the relationship between the spirit and the body.
Please note that when Mathewes-Green talks about “Anna” she is referring to a character she has created for the book that represents a Christian from the 5th century, living in the Middle East.

(What follows is from chapter 7 of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book The Illumined Heart, entitle “Introduction to the Passions, and the Disciplines of the Body”)

…the attitude of the early church was that all material creation is very good. Yet along with our healthy responses to this world we have some blunted, broken ones that would have us treat it and other people in greedy, selfish ways. Those impulses are usually called “the sinful passions,” and training and restraining them is the primary spiritual exercise. When fully converted, the energy of fallen passions becomes power to do the will of God.

The word “passion” can trip us up, because (after the initial romance novel associations) we Western Christians think of passion as a good thing–as a motive for courageous action and dedication to a cause. Our use here, however, has a different meaning, and the key is to recognize the same root word behind “passion” and “passive.” Anna would see these recurring sinful impulses–for example, a tendency to blow up when her children have her rattled– as not an action, but a passion, a submission to forces that lead her away from God. Passions mean loss of self-direction and self-control, a slipping beneath the undertow of mindless impulse.

….

We take responsibility for such failures, but sly forces nudge us toward them as well. As St. Peter says, our enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Anna believes that such demonic powers truly exist, and that they are ever watching and hoping for opportunities to confuse and capture her. Anna knows she is born with a fallen disposition to sin, and bears full responsibility for her deeds; passions may not be chosen, but actions are. However, in the devil she has a fearsome enemy as well, working diligently to destroy her.

It is Satan that God’s wrath is directed against, Anna believes, not us. While our sins rightly deserve condemnation, God desires our salvation, and his judgment is a blessing, the diagnosis that precedes healing.

The early church understood the Cross primarily as the way God defeated Satan, rather than the way Jesus paid his wrathful Father the debt for our sins. Those ideas did not take precedence till very much later in the West. In the early church God was most often a seeking, saving Father, not an infuriated judge or a demanding creditor. One prayer from the Vespers service captures the balance: “Unto Thee, the awful Judge who yet lovest mankind, have Thy servants bowed their heads . . .entreating Thy mercy and looking confidently for Thy salvation.” He is truly the awful Judge, yet because his love is sure we can expect salvation with confidence.

…God’s most constant characteristic is his overwhelming, forgiving love, seen so naturally in human fatherhood, as in the story of the prodigal son. As long as this analogy of fatherhood underlies other images it sweetens them; no one automatically associates a judge or a creditor with generous, tender affection. Emphasis on those alternate analogies, however, gradually increased in the Western church in the last thousand years, and our relationship with God came to seem one mostly concerned with legal or financial debt, rather than longsuffering love between parent and wandering child.

The interior of Anna’s church is painted with many scenes of biblical events, a picture Bible for a time when many are still illiterate. The image depicting the Resurrection doesn’t show the garden tomb, but a scene out of the 1Peter. Jesus stands on the broken gates of hell, which are crossed over a black pit. At the bottom Satan lies bound in his own chains. Jesus is reaching out to each side, grasping Adam and Eve by their wrists, and pulling them up from their tombs, while the righteous of all generations stand assembled behind him. On Pascha (Easter) Anna’s congregation sings joyfully over and over, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

This battle between Christ and the evil one forms the backdrop of every believer’s journey to theosis [holiness, or union with God]. Thus, Anna has two enemies to wrestle with: her own sinful passions, and the evil one who is ever alert to exploit them. As St. Paul warned, this war is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces that wish us destruction.

Fighting this war will require disciplines that involve our whole selves, both physical and mental aspects. Body and mind don’t, in reality, split as neatly as modern Western people think they do; things that affect the one pretty obviously affect the other, and they are united in ways we cannot comprehend. By the same token, disciplines of the body can strengthen the mind, and disciplines of the mind. . .can increase bodily fortitude.

Anna and [her husband] are part of a worshipping community that has inherited wisdom about how to discipline the body for spiritual growth. As fitting St. Paul’s analogy of the athlete, these consist of exercises. A weightlifter may spend diligent hours pumping iron, but not because he’s preparing in case he someday runs across a group of people gathered in dismay around a barbell. The muscles he strengthens each day, however, will come in handy if he is suddenly called on to lift a car off a little girl. In the same way, bodily self-discipline gained through exercises in one test area builds strength to combat temptation in all areas.

The most basic exercise is fasting.

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