Winning the Three Battles to Fight the One Battle that Matters
Antony said, ‘He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: but there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart.’The Desert Fathers, p. 8
Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics argues that contemplation of the truth is the highest human good. To do this requires not only the cultivation of moral and intellectual virtue but also the acquisition of sufficient material wealth and social freedom so that the demands of the body are met. Or, as he says,
…one will also need external prosperity; for our nature is not self-sufficient for the purpose of contemplation, but our body also must be healthy and must have food and other attention.
Nevertheless, he goes on to say, “we must not think that the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods.” Material “self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess.” Likewise, social status (or its lack) is no impediment either since “we can do noble acts without ruling earth and sea.”
For the life of virtue and contemplation material and social simplicity are sufficient.
…even with moderate [material] advantages one can act virtuously (this is manifest enough; for private persons are thought to do worthy acts no less than despots-indeed even more); and it is enough that we should have so much as that; for the life of the man who is active in accordance with virtue will be happy.Ethics, X.8
Nothing Aristotle contradicts what would later become the Church’s own moral vision. Contemplation of the Truth—or in the Christian dispensation, communion with the Most Holy Trinity—transcends the senses but does not free us in absolute terms what the body needs. Likewise, intimacy with God does not come at the expense of our love of neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40; Matthew 23:23).
So when, as we do here, we read that we must “sit alone” and be “quiet,” we must not read into this any kind of Gnostic or idealistic philosophy that would deny the body.
Nor does this reflect any misanthropy, any disdain for my neighbor. Much less does the cultivation of silence demand from me hostile towards others or justify viewing my neighbor as a mere distraction to “my” communion with God.
Instead, we need to keep in mind that to cultivate victory in the first three battles of “hearing, speaking, [and] seeing” by solitude and outer silence is only a preparation for the one, true battle of the spiritual life with my own heart.
“The heart is but a small vessel” according to St Macarius the Great
…and yet dragons and lions are there, and there likewise are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.Homilies 43:7
Whether we are talking about material possession sufficient for our needs or the outer quiet, these are merely preparatory for the cultivation of inner quiet to stillness.
Freed from bodily and social distractions, I can begin the task of self-examination as I struggle to require the self-knowledge that St Antony says is the prerequisite for the knowledge of God.
Once we turn inward and begin to really listen we discover, as St Macarius tells us, not only the whole of the spiritual life. We also discover that the heart is a microcosm of salvation history. The heart is a miniature of the redemption of humanity and with it the whole Creation.
For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.Romans 8:22-23, NKJV
One reason a life of material simplicity and outer quiet is difficult for many of us is found right here.
Free from the demands of the body and society, I can’t help but turn inward and see the great battle that is being fought there. I realize that it is my over-attachment to material goods and my neighbor’s opinion of me that are the real distraction.
Nothing created by God is evil. It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. It is only the misuse of things that is evil, not the things themselves.St. Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Love, 3.4
Especially for the novice in the spiritual life, this glimpse of the depth and breadth can be frightening. Much better it seems to keep distracted by externals than to see that my heart contains “dragons and lions … poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness.”
But when I am frightened by the horror contained there and turn away, I miss seeing as well that my heart also the place where I will find “God, … angels, … life, … the Kingdom, … light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace.”
To realize that “all things are there” in my heart is dizzying and frightening.
It is also a source of great joy as I realize that God has not abandoned me in even in those moments when I would abandon myself. It is this last thing that is the true and lasting battle of our life in Christ.