Guarding the house of the soul

4 July 2019 OS: Wednesday of the Fifth Week of St. Matthew, St. Andrew of Crete, Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia

In today’s Gospel, the Lord warns us that after we repent, we must keep up our zeal and attentiveness, or we shall fall into worse things than those we had escaped:

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation. St. Matthew 12:38-45

St. Theophan the Recluse explains how a demon can return to an Orthodox Christian from whom he has been driven out, and make him worse than he was before:

In every person who lives unrepentant in sin, there lives a demon, as if in a house, who takes charge over everything within him. When by the grace of God such a sinner comes to contrition over his sins, repents, and ceases to sin – the demon is cast out from him. At first the demon does not disturb the one who has repented because, in the beginning, there is much fervor within him which burns demons like fire and repulses them like an arrow. But then, when fervor begins to grow cold, the demon approaches from afar with its suggestions, throws in memories about former pleasures, and calls the person to them. If the penitent does not take care, his sympathy will soon pass to a desire for sin. if he does not come to his senses and return to his former state of soberness, a fall is not far off. The inclination for sin and the decision to commit it are born from desire – the inner sin is ready, and the outward sin is only waiting for a convenient occasion. When an occasion presents itself, the sin will be accomplished. Then the demon will enter again and begin to drive a person from sin to sin even faster than before. The Lord illustrated this with the story about the return of the demon into the clean, swept house.Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 139-140

St. Theophan is here writing about the case of an Orthodox Christian who has fallen into a life marked by the habitual practice of extremely serious sins – those that exclude one from Holy Communion, according to the canons – and then has repented and begun his Orthodox life afresh, but, sadly, goes back to his old, excommunicated way of life. He would not have written that the demon lives inside of the person – rather than the demon’s attacking from the outside – if this were not the case. Most of us are not in this position, but we would do well to heed Our Lord’s words and the saint’s commentary as a spur to acquire three habits of mind: sensibility – awareness – of our sinfulness, sorrow for sin, and prayerful attentiveness. If we lose or never acquire these, not only shall we not be able to fight the “small” daily sins, but also we are all quite capable of falling away so seriously that we can become the formerly swept house occupied by seven demons.

Awareness of our sinfulness – The Holy Fathers teach that the most dangerous state of soul is insensibility. We may not be committing great, obvious sins, but our general attitude is one of carelessness and spiritual lukewarmness. If we are not aware of any sinfulness on our part, we are out of touch with reality, living in a dream world. If one dies in such a condition, torment at the demonic tollhouses cannot be avoided, and the final outcome is doubtful. Only those who actively, frequently examine their consciences, see their sins of thought, word, and deed, and reproach themselves constantly, can prepare with regularity and profit for Holy Communion and therefore hope firmly to die in the grace-filled state of repentance. Sadly, insensibility is the normal state of the “mainstream,” that great mass of nominal Orthodox Christians, the realization of which fact helps us to understand Our Lord’s repeated assertions that few will be saved. Yet how simple it is to overcome this insensibility: We simply have to ask the Lord, fervently and repeatedly, to open our eyes, to enable us to acquire a lively awareness of our many daily sins of thought, word, and deed. This prayer is very pleasing to God, and He will give the grace!

Sorrow for sin – In addition to asking the Lord to open our eyes to our sins, let us implore Him to give us sorrow for sin. This sorrow is not a depressed remorse, a prideful frustration with our lack of improvement. (If this is our response to seeing our sins, this reveals to us how much pride lives within us, how much we rely only on ourselves and not on God’s gracious, all-efficacious help.) Rather, saving sorrow for sin is the bright sorrow of compunction. In this state of soul, we see the full depth, the full horror, of our sinfulness and separation from God, but simultaneously we receive the absolute, gracious assurance of His forgiveness. We grieve, mourn, and weep over our sins while at the same time experiencing joy of heart, Paradise within, an inner conviction of firm hope in our salvation. We begin to understand that God is worthy of all love for His own sake, and we receive the grace of holy zeal, the burning desire to do His holy will, not only to avoid the pains of hell and acquire the joys of heaven, but above all to please the Lord, because He is worthy of all love, and to love Him is the purpose of our existence.

Prayerful attentiveness – Even after we receive the graces of seeing our sins and acquiring holy compunction, we can still fall away, because of the changefulness of human nature. This remains true for everyone, even for Orthodox Christians who have acquired the grace of working miracles due to extreme holiness, until the very moment of death. Therefore it is critical that we be faithful to our daily prayers of morning and evening, and then, throughout the day, frequently repeat the Prayer of Jesus: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son, of God, have mercy on me a sinner!” We must beg the Lord for the grace of an attentive, sober state of mind, and not get caught up in the trivialities and passions of worldly life. Of course, we will be distracted a thousand times a day – that is normal – but then a thousand times a day we return to our Jesus Prayer. This is how a rock-like, firm state of mental and cordial (i.e. heartfelt) attention is acquired! Every time we return to attentiveness, we receive more grace! The Lord has designed us for this dynamic; it is the arena of a daily Christian life, nothing unusual. We have only to commit ourselves to it and then repeatedly force ourselves back to it. He will give us abundant grace to do this.

May Our gracious Lord ever bestow on us the grace to see our sins, acquired grace-filled compunction, and attend continually to the thoughts of our mind and the movements of our heart. Amen.

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