Pursue the small consolation that is acquired in time from toil, that you may be accounted worthy of that great consolation which dispels the troubles of this life of sorrows for those who find it. Do not despise small things, lest you be deprived of great ones. Has no one ever seen an infant who, when he puts flesh in his mouth, sucks milk? By means of small things the door is opened to great ones. You dishonour God, O my brother, in that you desire Him to govern you without a definite order. For no man has been entrusted with great things without first having been tried in small ones.
From The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 25.
In context, Saint Isaac is discussing noetic prayer amongst monastics. There were those (like the heretical Messalians) who claimed to be able to enter a state of theoria at will, and that their prayer became such regularly, with no effort. Over the course of this and the previous two homilies, however, Saint Isaac destroys the foundations of such a supposition. Theoria is not something that is generated at will, a kind of “altered state of consciousness”, but is an uncreated grace of God, something on His terms, not ours.
But this brought to my mind how often people these days deceive themselves and one another that a life of prayer is an extremeley easy thing. How easy it is to read a few chapters of the Philokalia, do a couple laps around the prayer rope, and then be impatiently waiting for theoria! What is even worse are those who are completely outside the tradition, smorgasbording their way through ancient Christian texts and practices (Eastern ones in particular are now so en mode!) and who think that this or that ancient text or practice, ripped out of its context, is justificatioin for a personally concocted supremely smug “spirituality” that is so terrifically annoying, yet so abundantly common these days.
The Christian way is threefold: purification, illumination, and glorification. One leads to the other. Without purification, without turning one’s body and mind away from those things which separate us from God, one will not experience the illumination of the soul that comes from the Holy Spirit. And without illumination of the soul, one is not experiencing theosis, the eternal approach toward the perfection of God, which is our transformation and glorification. Purification > Illumination > Glorification. We cannot skip a step. Nor may we adjust any of these steps for a perceived need to appease the world’s perceptions and expectations. The truly Christian life is something that is anti-world. And without that first step, to resolutely turn our minds away from an earthly goal and toward a heavenly one, we are not on that path at all.
Saint Isaac is quite thought-provoking!