While a body that has been nourished too well and has received too much rest gives man a false notion of fullness and autonomy, introducing pride in him, asceticism weakens man’s body and thus causes him to sense his real fragility, the weakness of his present nature, the ephemeral character of his bodily and earthly existence, the relativity of his being. This labor thus leads him to humility. As St Isaac observes: “The more sufferings increase, the more sufficiency diminishes.”
~Dr Jean-Claude Larchet (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, vol.2 p.270)
The most immediate goal of bodily asceticism is to put an end to the unnatural submission of the soul to the body; to free the soul from the body’s stranglehold, to restore the dominion of the soul over the body, to submit the body and the soul to the sovereignty of the mind. Thus St Thalassius writes: “The intelligence by nature submits to the Logos (ie. reason) and disciplines and subjugates the body.”
~Dr Jean-Claude Larchet (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses vol.2 p.264)
Furthermore, the Fathers highlight that the less man has submitted himself to the pains of asceticism, the more he must undergo involuntary suffering; this is not some kind of chastisement for his negligence, but rather a providential gift from God in order to permit man to receive the spiritual good things that would otherwise remain inaccessible to him. They insist on the fact that without effort and even without suffering, it is impossible for man not only to be purified from the least passion, but even to acquire the least virtue, to pass from the state of a fallen creature to that of the “new creation”.
St John Damascene notes: “Conversion, the passion from what is contrary to nature to what is according to nature, is accomplished by asceticism and sufferings.” St Isaac the Syrian repeats this many times: “The commandments of God are fulfilled in afflictions and torments”; “the cause of virtue is the narrow path of affliction”; “the virtues are linked to afflictions. Whoever withdraws from afflictions inevitably withdraws from virtue. If you desire virtue, accept to be bruised.”
~Dr Jean-Claude Larchet (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses vol.2 p.263)
To be attentive and watch over oneself, according to the frequent recommendation of the Fathers, means generally to be concerned with oneself–that is, with one’s spiritual being and destiny–rather than with external things. This means especially to endeavor to know and recognize one’s spiritual illnesses, which knowledge is the condition for healing. St Basil says:
“In all things you must strive to know the status and illnesses of your soul. For many have dangerous infirmities, of which they are not aware…”
More generally, this means being attentive to one’s whole being, keeping watch at once over one’s body and soul, monitoring one’s external behavior in order to avoid evil acts, and guarding one’s inner life in order to avoid wicked thoughts.
~Dr Jean-Claude Larchet (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses vol.2 p.239)
The manifestation of thoughts (ie. revealing our thoughts to make known our inner state) in particular allows one to avoid the sins brought about by hidden thoughts. St Theodore the Studite asks: “Whence does unreasonable activity…come among you? Is it not because you do not reveal yourselves, but hide your evil thoughts?” He notes further: “The origin and root of the sins that we commit is a wicked thought.”
The revelation of thoughts also allows one to prevent the strengthening of existing passions or the forming of new passions, produced when they are given free reign to repeat themselves. Finally, this revelation allows one to avoid having thoughts in the soul that destroy and gnaw away at it, and which in any case might have multiple pathological effects on the inner life precisely because of their hidden character.
Unrevealed thoughts continue to live in the soul, often silently and imperceptibly; they anchor themselves within it, develop there, and gradually poison it. In the end, they take the soul into captivity, from which escape will be all the more difficult since the soul will have refrained for a long time from reacting, and will have been slow to manifest its thoughts. For this reason St John Cassian speaks of “the despotism of hidden thoughts” and “the frightful dominion that they exercise as long as they are concealed.”
~Dr Jean-Claude Larchet (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses vol.2 p.217)
By reorganizing his being and bringing it into conformity with God, man accomplishes what he was created for. He actualizes his nature’s normal end goal; he is and does what he can best be and do; he progresses towards the perfection to which God calls him; he becomes adequate to his true nature. This is the nature Adam possessed in Paradise but had altered through his sin: the nature that Christ gave back to mankind by bringing it to its fulfillment in Himself; the nature that man himself has put on by being baptized, albeit with the task of personally assimilating such nature to himself. There is a close correlation between man’s true nature and the nature of the commandments God gives him, which once again shows that the latter are in no way abstract principles or theoretical demands–ideals with no relation to man’s needs, possibilities, and destiny–but rather correspond on a deep level to what he is in essence…
~Dr Jean-Claude Larchet (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses vol.2 pp.124-125)
Just as God had created Adam free and had allowed him to undergo the serpent’s temptation, so too does He leave the newly baptized person free and permits the demons to tempt him. God allows this in order that man might not be saved despite himself, but rather that he might manifest the whole reality of his will to be healed in Christ–as well as the degree of his attachment to God–in his resistance to the temptations. He further allows this in order that man might become the free co-worker in his own healing, salvation, and deification, and in order that he might personally and voluntarily make his own the gifts he has received.
If man were to strive with all his being to preserve and assimilate to himself the grace conferred in the sacraments without ever departing from this path, he would remain in the state of health and purity that baptism had restored to his nature. The Fathers point out that it is not a priori impossible for man to lead a life in which he would commit no sin and would keep all Christ’s commandments, but that in fact, very few baptized persons have really been aware of all the grace they have received.
In regard to baptism, St Symeon the New Theologian writes: “All of us are far from having recognized the grace, the illumination, indeed the simple fact of such a birth! No, scarcely one in a thousand, or even one in ten thousand, have recognized this in mystical contemplation, whereas the others–all of them–are stillborn infants who are unaware of Him Who brought them into the world.”
~Dr Jean-Claude Larchet (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses vol.2 pp.70-71)