From the moment of one’s Baptism, every Christian enters into spiritual combat. There we die to sin, in order to live for God. Tlhis battle, as the apostle Paul teaches, is not about wrestling against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). The Christian engages in spiritual warfare by being armed with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; we thus cleanse our thoughts and achieving dispassion. Saint John Cassian teaches that spiritual combat helps a person achieve perfection: battle is in accordance with the will of God. It serves human good and awakens in a person ardent striving for greater perfection.”
Fasting and Almsgiving
Christians have fasted since ancient times. It was and is a way of imitating the forty-day fast of Christ during which he fought the devil’s temptations and overcame them. Fasting as a means of spiritual combat was further developed by monastics, who saw it as a means of achieving purity of heart. Fasting takes hold of the entire being: the body through restraint in food and drink, and the soul through restraint of the passions. Saint John Chrysostom teaches: “Do you not eat flesh? Feed not upon indecency by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive slander and calumnies … For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters?”
Fasting is inextricably linked with almsgiving:
In the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.
Almsgiving as a manifestation of love for one’s neighbour is an imitation of God himself. It was God who first revealed his mercy towards us.
We are constantly under the influence of various thoughts, ideas, and views, and we choose from among them those that we consider important. These thoughts can be either good or evil, and so they affect our spiritual life in different ways.
In the book of Genesis, we read how the serpent deceived the human race, saying that they will become like God if they reject his commandment. Temptation is a “nudge” or incitement to sin. Confronted by such instigation, humanity can either succumb or resist it. Adam and Eve succumb to the sinful temptation (evil thought) and become, therefore, personally responsible for the sin.
If we give our assent to evil thoughts, then we sin. beginning of every sin is the acceptance of an evil thought coupled with the desire to bring it to life. If a person does not take possession of an evil thought, this thought is not a sin but only a temptation.
The same occurs in our lives. If we give our assent to evil thoughts, then we sin. beginning of every sin is the acceptance of an evil thought coupled with the desire to bring it to life. If a person does not take possession of an evil thought, this thought is not a sin but only a temptation. Saint John of Damascus distinguishes various stages in the process by which evil thoughts penetrate the heart.499 Among these are: suggestion, internal conversation, struggle, assent, and passion (captivity).
Temptation begins with a suggestion. Suggestion can manifest itself in various images, fantasies, or recollections; it can come through material things and circumstances, making evil appear attractive. Such thoughts accompany a person throughout life. Christ had a similar experience while being tempted in the desert. If a suggestion is not dismissed, the evil thought will continue to penetrate a person’s heart.
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The second stage is the conversation, as it were, with the suggested thought. A person considers and weighs arguments for and against the suggestion. We know about the danger of this conversation with the Evil One from the book of Genesis: the conversation between Eve and the serpent was the first step of our ancestors toward sin. Christ, on the other hand, while being tempted in the desert refiased to engage the tempter in conversation, and decisively rejected his suggestions with quotations from Holy Scripture (see Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13).
A thought that has penetrated the heart through conversation is difficult to dismiss. A person cannot be rid of it without struggle and effort. The Word of God and prayer assure victory in this battle.
The third stage is struggle. A thought that has penetrated the heart through conversation is difficult to dismiss. A person cannot be rid of it without struggle and effort. The Word of God and prayer assure victory in this battle.
fourth stage is assent, that is, acceptance of an evil thought, which is equivalent to defeat in battle. By making an evil thought one’s own and deciding to make it a reality, a person has already sinned, even if the evil intention is not be acted upon.
final stage is the actual passion. This is a state of captivity that results from sinful activity. A person given over to passion experiences a constant inclination towards evil. The inclination can become so powerful that a person loses the strength to resist, becomes addicted to evil, and a slave to passion.
The battle against evil thoughts and passions, and the acquiring of virtues, is the essence of Christian ascesis. The effects of passions are so ruinous that they are often compared to a debilitating illness.
If the Christian is aroused to defection and is done in by evil, he becomes like a city without walls which robbers invade from any part they wish, for there is absolutely no resisting force and they plunder it and set it on fire. Thus, while you are neglecting yourself and hardly taking stock of yourself, the evil spirits enter into you and destroy and lay barren your mind, dissipating your thoughts on things of this world. Therefore, a Christian should strive with the utmost diligence to conquer passions and free himself or herself from them.
A Christian should strive with the utmost diligence to conquer passions and free himself or herself from them
Freedom from passions (in Greek, apätheia) is a precondition of Christian perfection. Tie struggle against passions consists of three elements: awareness, resistance, and eradication. Human reason, illumined by grace, is capable of achieving an awareness of passion; the human will, in cooperation with God’s grace, can resist passion; the eradication of passion is the crown of spiritual combat and a sign of the healing power of grace. Freedom from passions is strengthened by ascetical practices. However, its only source is the love of God, which conquers all passions, and brings together all of a person’s efforts under the power of the Holy Spirit.
Being free from passions does not mean that a person is free from tempting thoughts, for the intrusion of such thoughts does not always depend on us. However, when a person achieves the state of apatheia, he or she dismisses the evil thoughts that lead to passion.
Prayer in the Spiritual Life
Prayer is one of the important manifestations of the spiritual life. Together with fasting and almsgiving, prayer is a component of spiritual warfare. Prayer confirms a person in the good and fosters communication with God. Prayer is a great blessing—a deep connection with God in love. “Prayer is by nature a dialogue and a union of a human being with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God ”
Gradually, through the practice of prayer, God teaches us that the conversation begins not with our words, but rather with our listening.
Prayer is a conversation with God initiated not by us but by God. He speaks to us continually though his Son (see Heb 1: 1), although we are not immediately aware of it. When parents lean over a cradle and talk to their infant, initially the child cannot understand their words. With time, the child begins to understand and tries to imitate the sounds it hears. In this manner, a child learns to speak. However, this would not be possible if the parents had not first spoken to the child.
In a similar fashion, we begin to speak to God in response to his speaking to us. Gradually, through the practice of prayer, God teaches us that the conversation begins not with our words, but rather with our listening. In addition to the ability to listen, prayer teaches us something else—to regard what the person speaking with us is saying as more important than what we have to say.
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