“’Take heed, lest your hearts be overwhelmed with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of this life’ (cf Luke 21:34)…stand guard, then, over your heart and keep a watch on your senses.”- St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect: Twenty-Seven Texts (Pg 24, 12th text)
When St. Isaiah refers to guarding our hearts and keeping watch over our senses, I don’t think he’s speaking of the senses and the emotions that we have grown accustom to protecting. We rarely allow ourselves to experience discomfort in any way. We eat what we want to eat and we drink what we want to drink. We surround ourselves with beautiful images and sweet smells and we clothe ourselves in fine fabrics. When we hear something on the radio we don’t like, we immediately change it. We submerge ourselves in comfortable surroundings and only censor ourselves against the things that would deny us of that comfort. When we couple St. Isaiah’s teachings with Evagrios’s outline on asceticism and stillness, we can see how incredibly different our understanding of censorship is compared to theirs. Evagrios teaches on pages 35-36 of the Philokalia to, “Concentrate your intellect; remember the day of death, visualize the dying of your body, reflect on this calamity, experience the pain, reject the vanity of this world, its compromises and crazes.” While we find entertainment in the destruction of celebrities, we have a hard time bringing ourselves to look upon images of death. We consider them unnecessary and grotesque, but what they’re really doing is penetrating our guarded senses.
We continually fill our senses with stimulation, needing to constantly feel good. We guard ourselves from the more negative emotions and experiences of life. We don’t allow ourselves to struggle with loneliness, sadness or depression. It’s only when we cannot experience that pain that we are in danger of letting debauchery, drunkenness and the cares of this life overwhelm our hearts. I am 25 and have been single for the vast majority of my life. It is when I feel lonely and don’t want to struggle with it that I begin to idolize marriage the most. I begin to think that the presence of a woman will solve the majority of my “problems” and I allow my mind to swim in such thoughts. As I somersault under water in the pools of my imagination I find myself becoming angry at God. I begin to accuse God of withholding his blessings from me, as if I can only find comfort in his gifts and not his presence. It is here that St. Isaiah and Evagrios would rebuke me for allowing the cares of this life to overwhelm my heart.
I believe St. Isaiah and Evagrios are telling us to guard our senses from the comforts of this life and from escapism. For how do we engage the isolated when we isolate ourselves in our own comfort? How can we mourn with those who mourn if we do not allow ourselves to experience sadness? How can we serve the orphan, the widow, and the homeless if we cannot confront our own pain? Alexander Solzhenitsyn says, “It is impossible for a man who is warm to understand one who is cold.” Are we really clothing the naked by getting rid of the items in our closets while restocking them with the latest fashion trends? Can we comfort those who cry if we are not first willing to baptize our soul with tears? Is it possible to carry each other’s burdens if we do not first pick up our own cross? It is not!
The power of Jesus Christ is not that we never go cold or hungry. It is not that we never experience pain, struggle, rejection or isolation. In fact the Scriptures say that if we want to be co-heirs with Christ, we need to share in his sufferings in order to share in his glories. The power of Jesus Christ is that we are hard pressed, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. The power of Jesus Christ is the redemption of our pain, not the absence of it.