Orthodox River


by St Theodoros the Great Ascetic

Introductory Note


What an immense struggle it is to break the fetter binding us so strongly to material things, to stop worshipping these things, and to acquire instead a state of holiness. Indeed, unless our soul is truly noble and courageous it cannot embark on such a task. For our goal is not merely the purification of the passions: this by itself is not real virtue, but preparation for virtue. To purification from vicious habits must be added the acquisition of the virtues.

With respect to its intelligent aspect, to purify the soul is to eradicate and completely expunge from it all degrading and distorted features, all “worldly cares’, as the Divine Liturgy puts it, all turbulence, evil tendencies and senseless prepossessions. With respect to its desiring aspect, it is to purge away every impulsion towards what is material, to cease from viewing things according to the senses, and to be obedient to the intelligence. And with respect to the soul’s incensive power, purification consists in never being perturbed by anything that happens.

In the wake of this purification, and the mortification or correction of ugly features, there should follow spiritual ascent and deification. For after abandoning what is evil, one must practice what is good. One must first deny oneself and then, taking up the cross, must follow the Master towards the supreme state of deification.

What are ascent and deification? For the intellect, they are perfect knowledge of created things, and of Him who is above created things, so far as such knowledge is accessible to human nature. For the will, they are total and continuous striving towards primal goodness. And for the incensive power, they are energetic and effective impulsion towards the object of aspiration, persistent, relentless, and unarrested by any practical difficulties, pressing forward impetuously and undeviatingly.

The soul’s impulsion towards beauty should surpass its impulsion towards what is base to the same degree as intelligible beauty surpasses sensible beauty. One should provide the body only with what is needed to keep it functioning properly. To intend to do this is easy, but to achieve it is more difficult, for without great effort one cannot uproot the soul’s well-entrenched habits.

Nor indeed is knowledge to be acquired without effort. Certainly, to keep one’s vision intently fixed on divine things until the will acquires the habit of doing this requires considerable labor over a long period of time. The intellect has to exert itself to oppose the downward drag of the senses; and this contest and battle against the body continues until death, even if it seems to diminish as anger and desire wither away, and as the senses are subjugated to the transcendent knowledge of the intellect.

It should be remarked, however, that an unillumined soul, since it has no help from God, can neither be genuinely purified, nor ascend to the divine light. What was said above refers to those who are baptized.

Moreover, a distinction should be made between different kinds of knowledge. Knowledge here on earth is of two kinds: natural and supernatural. The second can be understood by reference to the first. Natural knowledge is that which the soul can acquire through the use of its natural faculties and powers when investigating creation and the cause of creation - in so far, of course, as this is possible for a soul bound to matter. For, when speaking of the senses, the imagination and the intellect, it has to be said that the energy of the intellect is blunted by being joined and mingled with the body. As a result, it cannot have direct Contact with intelligible forms, but requires, in order to apprehend them, the imagination, which by nature uses images, and shares in material extension and density. Accordingly, the intellect while in the flesh needs to use material images in order to apprehend intelligible forms. We call natural knowledge, then, whatever knowledge the intellect in such a state acquires by its own natural means.

Supernatural knowledge, on the other hand, is that which enters the intellect in a manner transcending its own means and power; that is to say, the intelligible objects that constitute such knowledge surpass the capacity of an intellect joined to a body, so that a know-ledge of them pertains naturally only to an intellect which is free from the body. Such knowledge is infused by God alone when He finds an intellect purified of all material attachment and inspired by divine love.

Not only knowledge but virtue as well is divided in this way. One kind of virtue does not transcend nature, and this can fittingly be called natural virtue. The other, which is energized only by the primal source of beauty, is above our natural capacity and state; aid this kind of virtue should be called supernatural.

Knowledge and virtue, then, are divided in this way. An unil-lumined person may possess natural knowledge and virtue, but never those which are supernatural. How could he, since he does not participate in their energizing cause? But the illumined man can possess both. Moreover, although he cannot acquire supernatural virtue at all unless he has first acquired natural virtue, he can participate in supernatural knowledge without first acquiring natural knowledge. In addition, just as sense and imagination are far superior and more noble in man than they are in animals, so natural virtue and knowledge are far superior and more noble in the person who is illumined than in the person who is unillumined, although both may possess them.

Further, that aspect of natural knowledge concerned with the virtues and with the habits opposing them also seems to be of two kinds. One kind is theoretical knowledge, when a man speculates about these matters but lacks experience of them, and is sometimes unsure about what he says. The other is practical and, so to speak, alive, since the knowledge in question is confirmed by experience, and so is clear and trustworthy, and in no way uncertain or doubtful.

In view of all this, there appear to be four obstacles which hinder the intellect in the acquisition of virtue. First, there is prepossession, that is, the ingrained influence of habits running counter to virtue; and this, operative over a long period, exerts a pressure which drags the intellect down towards earthly things. Secondly, there is the action of the senses, stimulated by sensible beauty and drawing the intellect after it. Thirdly, there is the dulling of noetic energy due to the intellect’s connection with the body. The intellect of an embodied soul is not related to an intelligible object in the same way as sight is to a visible object or, in general, the senses are to sensory objects. Immaterial intellects apprehend intelligible objects more effectively than sight apprehends visible objects. But just as faulty sight visualizes its images of natural objects somewhat indistinctly and unclearly, so does our intellect, when embodied, apprehend intelligible objects. And since it cannot Bow clearly discern intelligible beauties, it cannot aspire after them either. For one has a longing for something only to the degree that one possesses knowledge of it. Hence the intellect - since it cannot help being drawn towards what appears to be beautiful, whether or not it really is so - is drawn down to sensible beauty, for this now makes a clearer impression on it.

The fourth of the obstacles impeding the intellect in its acquisition of virtue is the pernicious influence of unclean and hostile demons. It is impossible to speak of all the various snares they set on the spiritual path, making use of the senses, the reason, the intellect - in fact, of everything that exists. If He who carries the lost sheep on His shoulders (cf. Luke 15:5) did not in His infinite care protect those who turn to Him, not a single soul would escape.

Three things are needed in order to overcome these obstacles. The first and most important thing is to look to God with our whole soul, to ask for help from His hand, and to put all our trust in Him, knowing full well that without His assistance we shall inevitably be dragged away from Him, The second - which I regard as an overture to the first - is constantly to nourish the intellect with knowledge. By knowledge I mean that of all created things, sensible and intelligible, both as they are in themselves and with reference to the primal Source, since they derive from it and are related to it; and in addition to this, the contemplation, as far as is possible, of the Cause of all created things, through the qualities that appertain to Him. To be concerned with the nature of created things has a very purifying effect. It frees us from passionate-attachment to them and from delusion about them; and it is the surest of means for raising our soul to the Source of all. For all beauty, miracle, magnificence reflects what is supremely beautiful, miraculous and magnificent - reflects, rather, the Source that is above beauty, miracle and magnificence.

If the mind is always occupied with these things, how can it not long for supernal goodness itself? If it can be drawn to what is alien to it, how will it not be far more strongly drawn to what is cognate?

When the soul cleaves to what is kindred to it, how can it turn away from what it loves to anything inferior? It will even resent its incarnate life, finding it a hindrance to the attaining of the beautiful. For though the intellect, while living in matter, beholds intelligible beauty but dimly, yet intelligible blessings are such that even a slight emanation from that overflowing beauty, or a faint vision of it, can impel the intellect to soar beyond all that is outside the intelligible realm, and to aspire to that alone, never letting itself lapse from the delight it offers, come what distress there may.

The third way by which we can overcome the obstacles already mentioned is to mortify our partner, the body; for otherwise we cannot attain a clear and distinct vision of the intelligible world. The flesh is mortified or, rather, crucified with Christ, through fasting, vigils, sleeping on the ground, wearing coarse clothing and only what is essential, through suffering and toil. In this fashion it is refined and purified, made light and subtle, readily and unresistingly following the guidance of the intellect and rising upwards with it. Without such mortification all our efforts are vain.

When these three holy ways are established in mutual harmony, they beget in the soul the choir of blessed virtues; for those whom they adorn are free from all trace of sin and blessed with every virtue. Yet the rejection of material wealth, or of fame, may distress the intelligence; for the soul, still bound to such things, is pierced by many passions. None the less I firmly maintain that a soul attached to wealth and praise cannot mount upwards. Equally I say that a soul loses all attachment to these things once it has practiced this triad of ways sufficiently for it to have become habitual. For if the soul is persuaded that only the beauty which is beyond everything is to be regarded as truly beautiful, while of other things the most beautiful is that which is most like the supreme beauty, and so on down the scale, how can it relish silver, gold or fame, or any other degrading thing?

Even what most holds us back - I mean our cares and concerns -is no exception to the rule. For what cares will a man have, if he is not attached to anything worldly or involved with it? The cloud of cares comes from the fumes, so to speak, of the main passions -self-indulgence, avarice, love of praise. Once you are free of these you will also have cast off your cares.

Sound moral judgment has the same effect as wisdom, and is a most powerful factor drawing us upwards. Hence it too has its part to play. For the knowledge of the virtues involves the most scrupulous discrimination between good and evil; and this requires sound moral judgment. Experience and the struggle with the body teach us how to use such judgment in our warfare.

Fear also comes into the argument. For the greater our longing for God the greater grows our fear; and the more we hope to attain God, the more we fear Him. If we are wounded by divine love, the sting of fear exceeds that of a thousand threats of punishment. For as nothing is more blessed than to attain God, so nothing is more terrible than this great fear of losing Him.

To come to another point: everything may be understood in terms of its purpose. It is this that determines the division of everything into its constituent parts, as well as the mutual relationship of those parts. Now the purpose of our life is blessedness or, what is the same thing, the kingdom of heaven or of God. This is not only to behold the Trinity, supreme in Kingship, but also to receive an influx of the divine and, as it were, to suffer deification; for by this influx what is lacking and imperfect in us is supplied and perfected. And the provision by such divine influx of what is needed is the food of spiritual beings. There is a kind of eternal circle, which ends where it begins. For the greater our noetic perception, the more we long to perceive; and the greater our longing, the greater our enjoyment; and the greater our enjoyment, the more our perception is deepened, and so the motionless movement, or the motionless immobility, begins again. Such then is our purpose, in so far as we can understand it. We must now see how we can attain it.

To intelligent souls, which as intellective beings are only a little lower than angelic intellects, life in this world is a struggle and incarnate life an open contest. The prize of victory is the state we have described, a gift worthy both of God’s goodness and of His justice: of His justice, because these blessings are attained not without our own sweat; of His goodness, because His boundless generosity surpasses all our toil, especially as the very capacity for doing good and the actual doing of it are themselves gifts of God.

What, then, is the nature of our contest in this world? The intelligent soul is conjoined with an animal-like body, which has its being from the earth and gravitates downwards. It is so mixed with the body that though they are total opposites they form a single being. Without change or confusion in either of them, and with each acting in accordance with its nature, they compose a single person, or hypostasis, with two complete natures. In this composite two-natured being, man, each of his natures functions in accordance with its own particular powers. It is characteristic of the body to desire what is akin to it. This longing for what is akin to them is natural to created beings, since indeed their existence depends on the intercourse of like with like, and on their enjoyment of material things through the senses. Then, being heavy, the body welcomes relaxation. These things are proper and desirable for our animal-like nature. But to the intelligent soul, as an intellective entity, what is natural and desirable is the realm of intelligible realities and its enjoyment of them in the manner characteristic of it. Before and above all what is characteristic of the intellect is an intense longing for God. It desires to enjoy Him and other intelligible realities, though it cannot do this without encountering obstacles.

The first man could indeed, without any hindrance, apprehend and enjoy sensory things by means of the senses and intelligible things with the intellect. But he should have given his attention to the higher rather than to the lower, for he was as able to commune with intelligible things through the intellect, as he was with sensory things through the senses. I do not say that Adam ought not to have used the senses, for it was not for nothing that he was invested with a body. But he should not have indulged in sensory things. When perceiving the beauty of creatures, he should have referred it to its source and as a consequence have found his enjoyment and his wonder fulfilled in that, thus giving himself a twofold reason for marveling at the Creator. He should not have attached himself, as he did, to sensory things and have lost himself in wonder at them, neglecting the Creator of intelligible beauty.

Thus Adam used the senses wrongly and was spellbound by sensory beauty; and because the fruit appeared to him to be beautiful and good to eat (Gen. 3:6), he tasted it and forsook the enjoyment of intelligible things. So it was that the just Judge judged him unworthy of what he had rejected - the contemplation of God and of created beings - and, making darkness His secret place (cf. 2 Sam. 22:12; Ps. 18:11), deprived him of Himself and of immaterial realities. For holy things must not be made available to the impure. What he fell in love with. God permitted him to enjoy, allowing him to live according to the senses, with but faint vestiges of intellectual perception.

Henceforward our struggle against the things of this world became harder, because it is now no longer in our power to enjoy intelligible realities in a way corresponding to that in which we enjoy sensory realities with the senses, even though we are greatly assisted by baptism, which purifies and exalts us. Yet, in so far as we can, we must give our attention to the intelligible and not to the sensible world. We must reverence it and aspire to it; but we must not reverence any sensory object in and for itself, or try to enjoy it in that way; for in truth what; is sensory cannot compare with what is intelligible. Just as the essence of the one far excels that of the other, so does its beauty. To aspire to what is ugly rather than to what is beautiful, to what is ignoble rather than to what is noble, is sheer lunacy. And if that is the case where both sensible and intelligible creations are involved, how much more so is it when we prefer matter, formless and ugly, to God Himself.

This, then, is our contest and struggle: strictly to watch ourselves, so that we always strive to enjoy intelligible realities, directing intellect and appetite to that end, and never allowing them secretly to be beguiled by the senses into revering sensory things for their own sake. And if we have to use the senses, we should use them in order to grasp the Creator through His creation, seeing Him reflected in created things as the sun is reflected in water, since in their inner beings, they are in varying degrees images of the primal cause of all.

Such, then, is our aim. How can we achieve it? As we said, the body desires to enjoy through the senses what is akin to it; and the stronger it is, the stronger its desire. But this conflicts with the soul’s purpose. So the soul must make every effort to curb the senses, so that we do not indulge in sensible realities in the way described. But since the stronger the body, the stronger its desire, and the stronger its desire the harder it is to check, the soul must mortify the body through fasting, vigils, standing, sleeping on the ground, going unwashed, and through every other kind of hardship, thus reducing its strength and making it tractable and obedient to the soul’s noetic activities. This is the aim. Yet it is easy to wish, hard to achieve; and failures greatly outnumber the successes, because even if we are most attentive, the senses often beguile us. So a third remedy has been devised: prayer and tears. Prayer gives thanks for blessings received and asks for failures to be forgiven and for power to strengthen us for the future; for without God’s help the soul can indeed do nothing. None the less, to persuade the will to have the strongest possible desire for union with and enjoyment of Him, for whom it longs, and to direct itself totally towards Him, is the major part of the achievement of our aim. And tears too have great power. They gain God’s mercy for our faults, purify us of the defilements produced through sensual pleasures, and Spur our desire upwards.

Thus, our aim is the- contemplation of intelligible realities and total aspiration towards them. The mortification of the flesh, together with the fasting, self-restraint and other things that contribute to it, are all practiced as a means to this end. And in their company is prayer. Each has many aspects; some contribute to one thing, some to another.

Love of praise and love of material wealth must not be regarded as pertaining to the body. Only the love of sensual pleasure pertains to the body. The fitting remedy for this is bodily hardship. Love of praise and love of material wealth are the progeny of ignorance. Having no experience of true blessings and no knowledge of noetic realities, the soul has adopted such bastard offspring, thinking that riches can supply its needs. Also it plunges after material wealth in order to satisfy its love for pleasure and praise, and even for its own sake, as if such wealth were a blessing in itself. All this results from ignorance of true blessings. Love of praise does not derive from any lack on the part of the body, for it satisfies no physical need. Inexperience and ignorance of primal goodness and true glory give rise to it. Indeed, ignorance is the root of all evils. For no one who has once grasped as he should the true nature of things - from where each thing comes and how it is perverted - can then totally disregard his own purpose and be dragged down to worldly things. The soul does not want a good that is only apparent. And if it is under the sway of some habit, it is also quite able to overcome this habit. Yet even before the habit was formed it had been deceived by ignorance. Hence one should above all strive after a true knowledge of created beings, and then spur one’s will towards primal goodness, scorning all worldly things and aware of their great vanity. For what do they contribute to our own true purpose?

To sum up briefly. An intelligent soul, while in the body, has but one task: to realize its own purpose. But since the will’s energy remains unstimulated unless there is intellection, we begin by trying to energize noetically. Noetic activity is either for the sake of willing or, more commonly, for its own sake as well as for the sake of willing. Blessedness - of which any significant life on earth is not only an overture but also a prefigurement - is characterized by both energies; by both intellection and willing, that is, by both love and spiritual pleasure. Whether both these energies are supreme, or one is superior to the other, is open to discussion. For the moment we shall regard both of them as supreme. One we call contemplative and the other practical. Where these supreme energies are concerned, the one cannot be found without the other, m the case of the lower energies, sequent to these two, each may be found singly. Whatever hinders these two energies, or opposes them, we call vice. Whatever fosters them, or frees them from obstacles, we call virtue. Energies that spring from the virtues are good; those that spring from their opposites are distorted and sinful. The supreme goal, whose energy, as we know, is compound of intellection and willing, endows each particular energy with a specific form, which may be used for either good or evil.