On Saturday, March 17th, at the home of Thalia Welch, we held our Ladies Lenten Retreat. The topic of our discussions was the book "God's Path To Sanity" by Dee Pennock. Below are the notes from Fr Martin's talk highlighting certain points from the book. We had a wonderful time together and hope to continue this as an annual event where the women of the parish can get together for fellowship, edification, and enjoying each other's company.
Notes From God’s Path To Sanity
Point #1 – The nature that we were born with, our fallen human nature that we inherited as fallen human beings, is NOT the nature for which we are created, the image of Christ.
Wisdom 2:23-24 – “For God created man for immortality and made him an image of His own eternity. But death entered into the world by the envy of the devil, and those of his portion tempt it.”
Our nature… that which we were born with – fallen and in need of healing; and that which were created with – in the image of Christ. We must neither ‘give up’ nor make excuses for our sins because ‘that is human nature’. We were created for much more!
With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.
We have the example of the saints… who were perfected in the image of Christ. We know salvation is possible by virtue of the sanctity of their lives.
So, understanding this distinction of what we are in our fallen state vs. what we are created and intended to be is very important for the proper approach to the spiritual life.
Quote from St Cyprian of Carthage on page 48: “By being able to see and condemn what we are, we immediately become able to love what we shall be in God.”
Point #2 – The holy fathers make a distinction between the lower aspects of the soul and the higher aspects of the spirit.
“A man has three layers of life: that of the spirit, of the soul, and of the body. Each of these has its sum of needs, natural and proper to a man. These needs are not all of equal value, but some are higher and others lower; and the balanced satisfaction of them gives a man peace. Spiritual needs are the highest of all, and when they are satisfied, then there is peace even if the others are not satisfied; but when spiritual needs are not satisfied, then even if the others are satisfied abundantly, there is no peace. Therefore, the satisfaction of them is called the one thing needful.
“When spiritual needs are satisfied, they instruct a man to put into harmony with them the satisfaction of one’s other needs also, so that neither what satisfies the soul nor what satisfies the body contradicts spiritual life, but helps it; and then there is a full harmony in a man of all the movements and revelations of his life, a harmony of thoughts, feelings, desires, undertakings, relationships, pleasures. And this is paradise!” (St Theophan the Recluse)
The distinction made here between “soul” and “spirit” does not mean that these are separate entities within human nature; rather, the “spirit” is the higher part, the “soul” the lower part, of the single invisible part of man (which as a whole is usually called the “soul”). To the “soul” in this sense belong those ideas and feelings which are not occupied directly with spiritual life-most of human art, knowledge, and culture; while to the “spirit” belong man’s strivings towards God through prayer, sacred art, and obedience to God’s law.
So often, spiritual life remains relegated to the aspects of the soul. It is important for us to examine this – both in order to understand and elevate the soul, but also to recognize the higher aspects of the spirit.
Fr Seraphim Rose spent a good deal of time in his catechism of young people discussing the need to develop the formation of the soul. Modern man has been so impoverished that we have some work to do just to familiarize ourselves with the awakening of the recognition and appreciation for the good, the beautiful, and what used to be ‘normal’ responses of human empathy and compassion.
Philippians 4:8 – “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.”
Point #3 - The three aspects of the soul: thinking, feeling, desiring or mind, heart, gut.
St Maximus the Confessor page 28: “There are three powers in the soul – the thinking, the excitable (energetic), and the desiring. By the thinking power we seek to understand what is good; by the desiring power we desire the good we have understood; by the excitable power we strive and fight for it.”
Defining these specific aspects of the soul is extremely helpful in better understanding our spiritual make-up and therefore being able to more accurately diagnose where we are falling into sin.
We must raise our mind, warm our heart, tame our will.
The passion that attacks the mind or thinking aspect is pride. It blinds us to reality and puffs us up with an over-inflated sense of our independence, need for control, and need to be right.
The passion that attacks the heart or feeling aspect is self-love. It enflames us with a desire for the fool’s gold of carnal satisfactions (gluttony, lusts, pampering, etc.) lulling us to settle for or attempt to satisfy ourselves with earthly consolations.
The passion that attacks the gut or desiring aspect is vainglory. It seeks out admiration and attention from others and leads us in the futile pursuit of people-pleasing.
And so, what are we to do? First call of Christ – repentance! Repentance is defined on page 47: “What is repentance? People often think of it as just taking the blame for something, confessing that one is guilty of wrongdoing, being sorry for having done something ‘bad’. And they shy away from it. Repentance is much more than that. It’s recognizing and mourning our separation from God.”
Analogy of the ‘umbrellas’... God’s love is unchanging. His love shines down upon us consistently. It is WE who hide ourselves in the shadows of our sins. Each time we sin it is like we open up an umbrella that obstructs the light of the sun. Sometimes those umbrellas are little cocktail umbrellas and sometimes they are huge parasols. But each one creates and obstacle between us and the shining love of God. Repentance and confession allows us to knock down those umbrellas and once again be able to perceive and receive the light of Christ.
Point #4 - How do we turn around the passions that affect our thinking, feeling, and desiring aspects?
If pride is rooted in ignorance of ourselves and our need for God, then we pray and work toward true self-knowledge and an awareness of God and our relationship to Him. We must feed our mind with holy things (scripture, contemplation of God, prayer, lives and writings of saints, etc.). Things which inspire us and build us in truth and FAITH.
Our vain-glory is fed by self-justification, blaming, hiding from facing the reality of our state. Making excuses for our sins… How quick we are to do so and how hesitant we are to make excuses for the sins of others. This should be completely reversed! We focus on the sins of others – it is THEY who are annoying, rather than looking at our self and working on why we are being annoyed. Things which inspire us toward humility and build in us HOPE.
Our self-love is fed by pitying ourselves, by trusting in our abilities, and – when they are frustrated – by seeking comfort in sensual pleasures to get a quick fix. Self importance and willfulness are the main causes of our anger, irritation, frustration, depression, etc. We are looking for love in all the wrong places… St Augustine said: ‘Man is restless until he finds his rest in God.’ Things which inspire us toward true LOVE of God.
Quote from St John Chrysostom on page 111: “…it is not the outward circumstances which make the storm within us. Rather, it is the disposition or condition of our own minds. Therefore, we should so order the mind that it may bear all things contentedly in Christ. Then we shall have no storm, nor even a ripple, within us, but always and clear and steady calm.”
If our spiritual condition is dependent upon the ups and downs of life, we are in for trouble… because you can count on life to be filled with ups and downs.
So much of the spiritual life is paradoxical… Our Lord tells us that he who loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it. It is when we jealously and fearfully cling to our self importance and our willfulness that we lose out.
Bob Dylan sang: ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’ It is not that we must literally lose everything, but we must indeed lose our attachment and misplaced hope in things. It is a matter of the disposition of the heart.
Where is our focus? If our focus is constantly on our self – our needs, our will, our desires – then we are in for a world of trouble and frustration. If the center of our focus shifts away from our self, toward the proper priority of God, then others, then our self… then we better align ourselves with the will of God and we can find peace and joy. Too much dramatization of our lives is an indication of self-love.
Point #5 – Watching the compass
The compass and the map. We often get so bogged down in the details of the map that we lose sight of the compass.
We must have our sights set higher… upon God and upon eternity (which begins now).
If we do so, we don’t get rattled by the ups and down of this life. All hell can be breaking loose and we can take it with greater patience and perspective – trusting in God that all things can work toward the good and knowing that what is happening in this moment is just that: what is happening in this moment. It does not define me, it does not define my life, it is an experience from which I can either draw closer to God or draw farther away from Him. Quote on pg 220: “this earthly life is given by God for the purpose of our redemption, our repentance and restoration to eternal life.”
And this is where that highest aspect of our being comes into play. We spoke at the beginning of mankind being composed of body, soul, and spirit. And we have just dissected the soul into its three main components: thinking, feeling, and desiring. Now, what of this higher aspect of the human being: the spirit. St Theophan the Recluse defines the spirit as that force which God breathed into man when He created Him. It comes from God, knows God, seeks God, and in Him alone finds rest.
St Theophan further goes on to define three movements in the life of the spirit: the fear of God, the conscience, and the longing for God.
The spirit acts upon the lower elements of the soul… In the thinking part by inspiring the yearning for the ideal. In the desiring part by inspiring the yearning for and production of good deeds. In the feeling part by inspiring the yearning for the beautiful.
Understanding this patristic teaching of the nature of human beings helps us to understand ourselves better. It allows us to better perceive the temptations which beset us and where they are attempting to take hold in us.
Point #6 - Understanding the true dignity of who we are helps us to raise ourselves up above the carnal and mundane and tune in to the true measure of who we are created to be.
The opposite of self-love is NOT self-loathing. This kind of disproportionate beating up of oneself is the other side of the same coin of self-preoccupation. It still remains me, me, me. A sober and healthy sense of the worth of our human person, that Christ values us enough to have suffered and died to redeem us, this kind of vision of the image of God within us is necessary in order to distinguish the unhealthy and sick tarnish and soot that besmirches the icon of Christ within us from the beauty of that icon. We must mercilessly persecute and work to eradicate and clean up that dirt and soot that defiles the beauty of the image of God, while never confusing the sickness of our sin from who we really are created to be.
What is the purpose of our lives? In baptism we make emphatic declarations… renouncing Satan and uniting ourselves to Christ. It is this process that heals us and it is the healing of our whole person that is the purpose of our life. Last paragraph on page 223 says: “Jesus came for these multitudes who wanted to be healed of the illnesses of sin: Those who are whole have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. From Him, we can receive sanity and restoration to life. What is sanity? It’s just coming into God’s will, and seeing the purpose of life, and living accordingly. Jesus makes it happen. He said, I will never leave you, nor forsake you. All His wonderful blessings come to us through the Holy Spirit. Through Him, writes St Basil the Great, hearts are lifted up, the infirm are held by the hand, and those who progress are brought to perfection.”