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The Three Powers of the Soul and Their Curative Exercises

by St. Theophan the Recluse

In the soul we find three powers: the intellect, the will, the heart, or, as the Holy Fathers say, the intellectual, desiring and incensive powers. Each of them is assigned particular curative exercises by the holy ascetics. These related exercises are both receptive and conducive to grace. They need not be contrived according to some theory, but rather chosen from tested ascetic labors particularly suited to a given power:

For the mind

1) Reading and hearing the Word of God, the writings of the Holy Fathers and the lives of the God-pleasers. 2) Studying and impressing upon yourself all the God-given truths in brief statements (the catechesis). 3) Asking questions of those older and more experienced. 4) Mutual informative discourse with friends.

For the will

1) Submission to the whole church rule. 2) Submission to civil order, or to family duty, for they are conduits of God's will. 3) Obedience to God's will as manifested in your fate. 4) Obeying your conscience in the doing of good deeds. 5) Subjecting yourself to the spirit that is zealous to fulfill its vows.

For the heart

1) Attending holy Church services. 2) Prayer, as specified by the Church; home prayer rule. 3) Using holy crosses, icons and other sacred substances and objects. 4) Observing holy customs established and promoted by the Church....

There are three powers: the intellect, the will and the senses. Corresponding exercises are given to them. They act directly to develop the powers, but in a way that does not quell the spirit-to the contrary, it ignites the spirit more and more. The latter serves as a measure and stabilizer to the former, which subjects itself to the latter to the point of speechless submission or even total cessation.

Exercises that develop the intellect, and also warm the spiritual life

A Christian intellectual development occurs when all the truths of the Faith are impressed so deeply into the intellect that the intellect's whole existence is made up of these truths alone. When it begins to reason over something, it reasons according to what it knows of the Christian truths, and would never make the slightest move without them. The Apostle calls this keeping the image of a sound mind (II Tim. 1:7).

Exercises or work related to this are: reading and hearing the Word of God, patristic literature, Lives of the Holy Fathers, mutual discourse and asking questions of those more experienced.

It is good to read or listen, better to have a mutual discourse, and even better to ask questions of those more experienced.

The most fruit-bearing is the Word of God, then patristic literature and the Lives of saints. Incidentally, it is needful to know that the Lives of saints are better for beginners, patristic literature for the intermediate, and the Word of God for the perfect.

All of these are the sources of Truth as well as the means for drawing from them; obviously, impressing them in the mind along with preserving the spirit of zeal also help.

Often one text will warm the spirit for more than a day. There are Lives of which the mere remembrance is enough to inflame zeal. There are also passages in patristic writings that inspire. Therefore we have this good rule: write down such passages and save them, in case you need them later to warm your spirit.

Often neither internal nor external work helps-the spirit remains sleepy. Hasten to read something from somewhere. If this does not help, run to someone to discuss it. The latter performed with faith is rarely fruitless.

There are two kinds of reading: one-ordinary, almost mechanical, and another-discriminating, according to spiritual need and advice. But the first kind is also not useless. It is, as we have said already, what is simply repeated and not studied.

It is most necessary for everyone to have someone with whom he can discuss spiritual matters-someone who already knows all our problems and to whom we can boldly reveal everything on our soul. It is best if it is only one person; two is too many. Idle conversations carried on only in order to pass the time should be avoided at all cost.

Here is a rule for reading:

Before reading you should empty your soul of everything. [1]

Arouse the desire to know about what is being read.

Turn prayerfully to God.

Follow what you are reading with attention and place everything in your open heart.

If something did not reach the heart, stay with it until it reaches.

You should of course read quite slowly.

Stop reading when the soul no longer wants to nourish itself with reading. That means it is full. If the soul finds one passage utterly stunning, stop there and read no more.

The best time for reading the Word of God is in the morning, Lives of saints after the mid-day meal, and Holy Fathers before going to sleep. Thus you can take up a little bit each day.

During such occupations, you should continually keeping mind the main goal—impressing the truth on yourself and awakening the spirit. If reading or discourse does not bring this about, then they are but idle itchings of the tongue and ears, or empty discussion. If it is done with intelligence, then the truths impress themselves and rouse the spirit, and one thing aids the other. But if the reading or discourse digresses from the proper image, then there is neither one nor the other—truth is stuffed into the head like sand, and the spirit becomes cold and hard smokes over and puffs up.

Impressing the spirit is not the same as searching for it. This requires only that you clarify what the truth is, and hold it in your mind until they bond together. Let there be no deductions or limitations—only the face of truth.

The easiest method for this could lawfully be considered the following: the whole truth is in the catechesis. Every morning take the truth from it and clarify it to yourself, carry it in your mind and nourish yourself with it for as long as it feeds the soul—a day, two days or longer. Do the same thing with another truth, and continue thus to the end. This is a method that is easy and applicable to everyone. Those who do not know how to read may ask for one truth and proceed from there.

We can see that the rule for everyone is this: impress the in Holy little truth in a way that will awaken you. The methods for fulfilling this rule vary, and it is not at all possible to prescribe the same one for everyone.

Thus, reading, listening and discourse that do not impress the truth or awaken the spirit should be considered wrong, as they lead away from the truth. It is a sickness to read many books out of curiosity alone, when only the mind follows what is being read, without leading it to the heart or delighting in its flavor.

This is the science of dreaming; it is not creative, does not hasten success, but is devastating and always leads to arrogance. All your work should be limited, as we have said, to the following: clarify the truth and hold it in the mind until the heart tastes of it. The Holy Fathers put it simply: remember it, hold it in the mind, and have it always before your eyes.

Exercises for developing the will, focusing also on awakening the spirit

Developing the will means impressing upon it good dispositions or virtues—humility, meekness, patience, continence, submissiveness, helpfulness and so on—so that in blending with and grafting onto the will, the virtues would eventually constitute its very nature, and when something is undertaken by the will, it would be undertaken according to their inspiration and in their spirit, and they would govern and reign over our deeds.

Such a disposition of will is the safest and most stable. But inasmuch as it is contrary to the spirit of sin, its achievement requires toil and sweat. That is why the activity related to this is for the most part directed against the chief infirmity of the will, that is—self-will, unsubmissiveness, and intolerance of the yoke.

This infirmity is healed by submission to the will of God, with denial of your own and of any other. The will of God is revealed through the various forms of obedience that each person carries. Its first and most important requirement is observing the laws or commandments according to each person's duty or calling; next is observing the rubrics of the Church, the dictates of civil and family order, the dictates of circumstance that are wrought by providential will, and the demands of a zealous spirit—all done with discernment and counsel.

All of this is within the field of righteous deeds which is open to anyone and everyone. Therefore, know only how to arrange this for yourself and you will not experience a dearth of means for developing the will.

For this you must clarify for yourself the sum of righteous deeds that are possible for you to do—in your station, calling and circumstances—together with an assessment of what, when, how, in what measure, and what can and should be done.

Having clarified all this, determine the general outline of the deeds and their order, so that nothing you do would be accidental. Remember at the same time that this is only an outline—details may change according to what is required under the circumstances. Do everything with discernment.

Therefore it is best to daily go over all the possible occurrences and deeds.

Those who are used to doing righteous deeds never pre-determine what they are going to do, but do always what God sends them, for everything comes from God. He reveals His own determinations to us through different occurrences.

By the way, all of this is only deeds. Doing them only straightens you out. In order to flow also into virtues through them, you must forcefully keep a true spirit of good works. To be more precise, do everything with humility and fear of God according to God's will and to His glory. He who does something out of self-reliance, with boldness and audacity, out of self-gratification or man-pleasing, no matter how righteous the works may be, only fosters within himself an evil spirit of self-righteousness, arrogance and pharisaism.

Carrying a right spirit, you should also be in remembrance of the laws, especially the law of graduality and constancy; that is, always begin with the small and ascend to what is higher. Then, once you have begun, do not stop.

By this you can avoid:

Embarrassment that you are not perfect, for perfection does not come all at once. The time will come.

Thoughts that you have already done everything; for there is no end to the heights.

Arrogant aspirations, ascetic feats beyond your strength.

The last stage is when good deeds have become natural for you, and the law no longer weighs upon you as a burden.

The one who achieves this most successfully is one who is blessed with the grace of living with an actively virtuous man, especially if he is being taught this science. He will not have to repeat and re-do every failure he has allowed through ignorance and inexperience. As they say, even if you do not read or intellectualize, only find a reverent man, and you will quickly learn the fear of God. This is applicable to any virtue.

Incidently, it is good to choose one outstanding virtuous work according to Lour character and station, and stick with it unswervingly—it will be the foundation or basis from which you can go on to others. It will save you in times of weakness—it is a strong reminder and quickly inspires. The most reliable of all is almsgiving, which leads to the King.

This concerns only works and not dispositions, which should have their own inner framework that is founded on the spirit, and are in a certain way independent of the consciousness and free will—they are as the Lord grants. All the saints accept the beginning of this to be the fear of God, and the end to be love. In the middle are all the virtues, one building upon another. Although they are perhaps not all the same, they are inevitably built on humble, compunctionate repentance and sorrow over sins, which are the essence of virtue. A description of each virtue—its nature, activity, degrees of perfection, and deviations from them—is the subject of special books and patristic instructions. Get to know all of this through reading.

This kind of virtuous activity directly develops the will and impresses the virtuous into it. At the same time it also keeps the spirit in constant tension. Just as friction causes warmth, so do good works warm the heart. Without them a good spirit also grows cold and evaporates. This is what usually befalls those who do not do anything, or those who limit themselves to merely not doing evil and unrighteousness. No, we must also find good works to do. Incidently, there are also those who make too much fuss over their works, and therefore quickly exhaust themselves and dissipate the spirit. Everything should be done in moderation.

Development of the heart

Developing the heart means developing within it a taste for things holy, divine, and spiritual, so that when it finds itself amidst such things it would feel as though it were in its element. Finding them sweet and blessed, it would be indifferent to all else, with no taste for anything else; and even more—it would find anything else revolting. All of man's spiritual activity centers in the heart. The truths are impressed in it, and good dispositions are rooted into it. But its main work is developing a taste for the spiritual, as we have shown. When the mind sees the whole spiritual world and its different components, various good beginnings ripen in the will. The heart, under their influence, should taste sweetness in all of this and radiate warmth. This delight in the spiritual is the first sign of the regeneration of a soul deadened by sin. Therefore the heart's development is a very important point even in the early stages.

The work directed at it is all of our Church services in all forms—common and personal, at home and in church—and it is mainly achieved through the spirit of prayer moving within it.

Church services, that is, all the daily services, together with the entire arrangement of the church's icons, candles, censing, singing, chanting, movements of the clergy, as well as the services for various needs; [2] then services in the home, also using ecclesiastical objects such as sanctified icons, holy oil, candles, holy water, the Cross, and incense—all of these holy things together acting upon all the senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste—are the cloths that wipe clean the senses of a deadened soul. They are the strongest and the only reliable way to do it. The soul becomes deadened by the spirit of the world, and possessed by sin that lives in the world. The entire structure of our Church services, with their tone, meaning, power of faith, and especially the grace concealed within them, have an invincible power to drive away the spirit of the world. In freeing the soul from the world's onerous influence, it allows the soul to breathe freely and to taste the sweetness of spiritual freedom. Walking into church we walk into a completely different world, are influenced by it, and change according to it. The same thing happens when we surround ourselves with holy objects. Frequent impressions of the spiritual world more effectively penetrate within and more quickly bring about a transformation of the heart. Thus:

1) It is necessary to establish a pattern of going to church as often as possible, usually to Matins, Liturgy and Vespers. Have a longing for this, and go there at the first opportunity—at least once a day—and if you can, stay without leaving. Our church is heaven on earth. Hasten to church with the faith that it is a place where God dwells, where He Himself promised to quickly hear prayers. Standing in church, be as if you are standing before God in fear and reverence, which you express through patient standing, prostrations, and attention to the services without wandering thoughts, relaxation or crudeness.

2) You must not forget other services—personal services, be they in church or at home. Neither must you neglect your home prayers with all their churchly tone. You should remember that home services are only a supplement to church services and not a replacement. The Apostle, commanding us not to deprive ourselves of a synaxis, informed us that all the power of services belong to common worship.

3) You must observe all Church solemnities, rituals, customs, and rubrics, and cover yourself with them in all their forms, so that you would always abide in a particular atmosphere. This is easy to do. Such is the nature of our Church. Only accept it with faith.

But what gives the most power to church services is a prayerful spirit. Prayer is an all-encompassing obligation, as well as an all-effective means. Through it the truths of the faith are also impressed in the mind and good morals into the will. But most of all it enlivens the heart in its feelings. The first two go well only when this one thing [prayer] is present. Therefore prayer should begin to be developed before anything else, and continued steadily and tirelessly until the Lord grants prayer to the one who prays.

The beginnings of prayer are applied at conversion itself, for prayer is the yearning of the mind and heart towards God, which is what happens at conversion. But inattentiveness or inability can extinguish this spark. Then right away you should begin the form of activity that we have already discussed, with the aim of kindling a prayerful spirit. Besides conducting services and participating in them, as we have described, the closest thing related to this is personal prayer, wherever and however it is performed. There is only one rule for this—accustom yourself to praying. For this you must:

1) Choose a rule of prayer—evening, morning and daily prayers.

2) Start with a short rule at first, so that your unaccustomed spirit will nor form an aversion to this labor.

3) Pray always with fear, diligence and all attention.

4) This requires: standing, prostrations, kneeling, making the sign of the Cross, reading, and at times singing.

5) The more often you do such prayer the better. Some people pray a little every hour.

6) The prayers you should read are written in the prayer book. But it is good to get used to one or another, so that the spirit would ignite each time you begin it.

7) The rule of prayer is simple: standing at prayer, with fear and trembling say it as if you were speaking into God's ear, accompanying it with the sign of the Cross, prostrations and failing down, corresponding to the movement of the spirit.

8) Once you have chosen a rule you should always fulfill it, but this does not prevent you from adding something according to the heart's desire.

9) Reading and singing out loud, in a whisper, or silently is all the same, for the Lord is near. But sometimes it is better to pray one way, other times another.

10) You should firmly keep in mind the limits of your prayers. It is a good prayer that ends with your falling down before God with the feeling that Thou Who knowest the hearts, save me.

11) There are stages of prayer. The first stage is bodily prayer, with reading, standing and prostrations. If the attention wanders, the heart does not feel, and there is no eagerness; this means there is no patience, toil or swear. Regardless of this, set your limits and pray. This is active prayer. The second stage is attentive prayer: the mind gets used to collecting itself at the hour of prayer, and says all with awareness, without being stolen away. The attention blends with the written words and repeats them as its own. The third stage is prayer of the feelings—the attention warms the heart, and what was thought with attention becomes feeling in the heart. In the mind was a compunctionate word, in the heart it is compunction; in the mind-forgiveness, in the heart—a feeling of its necessity and importance. Whoever has passed on to feeling prays without words, for God is a God of the heart. This, therefore, is the summit of prayer's development: while standing in prayer, to from feeling to feeling. Reading may stop at this, just as may thought; then there is only abiding in feeling with the known signs of prayer. Such prayer comes very little at first. The prayerful feeling comes over you in church or at home.... This is the common advice of the saints—do not let this leave your attention: when the feeling is present, cease all other activity and stand in it. St. John of the Ladder says: "An angel is praying with you." Attention to this manifestation of prayer ripens the development of prayer, and inattention decimates both the development and the prayer.

12) However, no matter how perfect one has become in prayer, the prayer rule should never be abandoned but should always be read as prescribed and always begun with active prayer. Mental prayer should come with it, and then prayer of the heart. Without the rule, prayer of the heart is lost, and the person will think that he is praying, but in fact he is not.

13) When the prayerful feeling ascends to ceaselessness, then spiritual prayer begins—a gift of the Spirit of God which prays for us. This is the last stage of attainable prayer. But it is said that there is also prayer that is incomprehensible to the mind, or surpasses the limits of awareness (as described by St. Isaac the Syrian).

14) The easiest means for ascending to ceaseless prayer is the habit of doing the Jesus Prayer and rooting it in yourself. The most experienced men of spiritual life who were enlightened by God found this to be the one simple and all-effective means for confirming the spirit in all spiritual activities, as well as in all spiritual ascetic life; and they left detailed guidelines for it in their instructions.

By laboring in asceticism we seek purification of the heart and renewal of the spirit. There are two ways to find this: the first is the way of activity, that is, performing those ascetic labors that we have previously outlined; and the second is that of the mind-turning the mind to God. In the first way the soul is purified and receives God, in the second God burns away all impurity and comes to abide in the purified soul. Considering the latter as belonging to the Jesus Prayer alone, St. Gregory the Sinaite says: "We acquire God by either activity, labor, or the artful calling on the Name of Jesus." He then supposes that the first way is longer than the second; the second is quicker and more effective. Others after him have given first place to the Jesus Prayer among podvigs. It illuminates, strengthens, enlivens, conquers all enemies visible and invisible, and leads us to God. That is how powerful and effective it is! The name of the Lord Jesus is the treasury of blessings, strength and life in the spirit.

From this it is evident that any penitent, or anyone beginning to seek the Lord, can and should be taught complete instructions in doing the Jesus Prayer. From there he can be brought into all other practices, because through this he will become strong more quickly, ripen sooner spiritually and enter the interior world. Not knowing this, other people, or at least a large part of them, stop with bodily activities and those of the soul, and waste nearly all their labor and time.

This activity is called an "art." It is very simple. Standing with awareness and attention in the heart, pronounce ceaselessly: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me," without picturing any sort of image or face, but with faith that the Lord will see you and attend to you.

In order to become strong in this, you should assign a time in the morning or the evening—fifteen minutes, a half hour, or more—however much you can, just for saying this prayer. It should be after morning or evening prayers, standing or sitting. This will place the beginnings of a habitual practice.

Then during the day, force yourself minute-by-minute to say it, no matter what you are doing.

It will become more and more habitual, and then it will start working as if by itself during any work or occupation. The more resolutely you take it up, the faster you will progress.

Your awareness should be kept unfailingly in the heart, and during the practice your breath should lighten as a result of the tension with which you practice it. But the most important condition is faith that God is near and hears us. Say the prayer into God's ear.

This habitual practice will draw warmth into the spirit, later enlightenment, then ecstasy. But acquiring all of this sometimes takes years.

At first this prayer is only active prayer, just like any other activity. Then it becomes mental prayer, and finally it takes root in the heart.

Some have gone astray from the right path through this prayer. Therefore it should be learned from someone who knows it. Deception comes mostly from placing the attention on the head rather than the chest.

Whoever has the attention centered in the heart is safe. Even safer is the one who falls down before God every hour in contrition, with the prayer that he be delivered from deception.

The Holy Fathers gave detailed instructions on this activity. Therefore, whoever takes up this work should read these instructions and throw out all else. The best instructions are by St. Hesychius, St. Gregory the Sinaite, St. Philotheus of Sinai, St. Theoleptus, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Nilus of Sora, Hieromonk Dorotheus, in the prologue to Elder Barsanuphius, and in the life of St. Paisius.

Whoever becomes practiced in this, having gone through everything set forth above, is a practitioner of Christian life. He will quickly ripen in his purification and in Christian perfection, and will acquire his desired peace in being with God.

This is the activity for the powers of the soul, which are adaptable to the movement of the spirit. Here we see how every one of them is adapted to the life of the spirit, or to spiritual feeling. But they also lead to the fortification of the primary conditions for being within, namely: mental activity—the concentration of attention; activity of the will—vigilance; activity of the heart—soberness. Prayer covers them all and encompasses them all. Even the production of it is nothing other than the interior work we have previously described.

All of these activities are assigned for the development of the powers of the soul in the spirit of a new life. This is the same as infusing the soul with spirit, or elevating it to the spirit and blending with it. In fallenness they are united to a contrary purpose. At conversion the spirit is renewed, but in the soul there still remains a cruet streak of unsubmissiveness and an aversion to the spirit and everything spiritual. These activities, penetrated with spiritual elements, cause the soul to grow into the spirit and blend with it. It is clear from this how essential these activities are and what a disservice those people do to themselves who abandon them. They themselves are the reason that their labors are fruitless. They sweat but see no fruit; they soon grow cold, and then everything comes to an end.

But we must remember that all the fruits of these labors come from the spirit of zeal and quest. It conducts the renewing power of grace through these activities and brings down life into the soul. Without it, all these activities are empty, cold, lifeless, and dry. Reading, prostrations, services and everything else are unfruitful when there is no inner spirit. They can teach vainglory and pharisaism, which become its sole support. This is why someone who has no spirit falls away when he meets with any opposition. Why, they themselves are a torture. For the spirit transfers power to the soul, which makes the soul so well disposed to these activities that it can not get enough of them and wants to have recourse to them always.

Thus it is extremely necessary when doing these activities to always bear in mind that the spirit of life must burn within, and we must in humility and pain of heart fall down before God our Savior. This state is fed and preserved best of all by prayer and prayerful activity. We must watch that we not stop with the activities alone just because they also nourish the soul. This might cause us to remain with them in soul at the cost of the spirit. This happens perhaps most often with reading, and generally any study and integration of the truth.

Endnotes

1. That is, of thoughts and cares that distract [trans.].
2. Such as Molebens, Pannikhidas, etc. [trans.].

From The Path to Salvation, trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose and the Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood (Platina, 1996), pp. 242, 247-261.