Spiritual growth and development is not something that happens automatically. We can’t just say a prayer once saying, “God, make me perfect!” and expect that immediately afterwards that we’ll be lifted to the heights of spiritual perfection and experience. No, it doesn’t work that way. The path to spiritual perfection is a difficult path, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:14) The Christian life is the life of daily dying-to-self; a continual inner martyrdom, ” If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23), “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) The life of the Kingdom is only obtained through sharing in the death of Christ, only this way can we be, “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17), and only through this continual crucifixion can we inherit the Kingdom, for, “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)
The labor of the spiritual life can be illustrated as the cultivating of a garden. First things first one must leave the hustle and bustle of the city, or of their own home, and walk outside to the place where the garden is located. We must walk away from all the distractions of life – the signs, billboards, advertisements, and everything else fighting for your attention – if we want to be able to focus on and complete the work in the garden. In our spiritual life the garden represents the heart (or the “nous” as it is commonly called in monastic literature) which is the locus of spiritual activity within a person (the monastic tradition recognizes that there are three faculties of the soul; the desiring faculty, the “incensive” – the part of us that becomes angry, irritated, or upset – faculty, and the intellectual – or “noetic” – faculty). Our initial spiritual work then consists on locating the heart within ourselves, and to do this we must enter into silence and seclusion because it is only in the state of solitary silence that one can detach themselves from all the cares and distractions of this world. We must work at detaching ourselves from the need to be constantly busy, the need to be constantly entertained and filling ourselves with some sort of media, the need to constantly fix our attention of worldly matters. This in itself is a daunting task, as we will quickly realize in our times of solitude, that even when we have physically detached ourselves from our normal occupations our thoughts are still constantly jumping to and fro so much that we’re just as distracted in solitude as we are any other time! Now we find ourselves having to take the next step in our spiritual labor.
What happens when we go outside to our garden is that we find that it’s not in a very good condition, due to negligence on our part. The soil is hard, there are weeds everywhere, and it’s covered with trash. We’ve been outside doing work, having fires with friends, and we’ve managed to toss all the trash and tools into the garden when we’ve been done with them. In the spiritual life our hearts are covered by the thoughts, worries, and cares of our day to day lives; be they related to work, to our interests, or our social activities. At this point what we have to do is to start clearing off all the trash and tools that are lying all over the garden. This is the work of repentance (the Greek word for repentance, ‘metanoia’, literally means “a change of mind”) that we must begin. We must begin to detach ourselves from the things of this world; we must go through the change of mind of how we view, treat, and engage the world around us. Being overly attached to money, entertainment, being busy, or possessions are all forms of idolatry, and in the end none of these things will deepen our communion with God and bring about our salvation, for, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). This work mostly consists of being watchful over the things that we do and say and working to refrain from giving into the idolatrous habits (“passions” as they are called in monastic literature) that we have acquired/developed.
The work of clearing off our gardens must be accompanied by tilling up the hardened soil. Once again due to negligence the soil in our gardens has become dried up, hard, and scorched. Due to the negligence of keeping the commandments of Christ and to giving ourselves over to our passions our hearts have become hardened and are unable to bring forth any spiritual fruit. Just as we need a spade or a till to work and break up the hardened soil, so we need a spiritual spade to work up the hardened soil of our hearts. The spiritual spade is the inner-cross. Before we go any further we must describe the inner-cross. In his homily to the nuns at the Suhovo Convent on September 14th, 1860, St. Theophan the Recluse describes for us how to erect the inner-cross. I won’t quote the whole homily (though it can be found in the book, “Kindling the Divine Spark: Teachings On How To Preserve Spiritual Zeal” which I would highly recommend!) but I will give here the three pieces that the inner-cross consists of. The bottom piece is self-denial, the upper piece is patience, and the horizontal bar is obedience. Together these three labors form the inner-cross through which we can break up our hardened hearts to make them fertile ground for the planting on the spiritual seeds.
Along with the work of clearing off the garden and tilling the soil we’re faced with the task of pulling out the weeds that have sprung up all around. We can’t even get to the weeds until we’ve begun to clean up some of the garbage since most of the weeds are hidden beneath the trash, and we don’t have any hope of pulling them out until we’ve begun to loosen up the soil. This is where we begin the spiritual work of uprooting our passions and banishing sinful thoughts, images, impressions, and temptations from our minds. Whereas the work of cleaning up the trash from the garden is primarily concerned with working on our sinful actions the work of pulling weeds is concerned with the sinful thoughts and habits from which the actions spring from, and we aren’t able to uproot the thoughts until we have first made some progress in refraining from engaging in the actions. The problem we’re faced with now is not only are there weeds, but these weeds have roots that run deep into the soil and are the sort of weeds with thorns and pricks that make it impossible to pull out without cutting up your hand. What we need in this situation is a glove to help us because by our bare hands alone we can not uproot these weeds. This is how it is with the passions, as St. Macarius says in one of his spiritual homilies, “To root out sin and the evil that is ever with us, this can only be accomplished by the divine power. It is not possible or within a man’s competence to root out sin by his own power. To wrestle against it, to fight against it, to give and receive blows, is thine; to uproot is God’s. If thou hadst been able to do it, what need was there of the coming of the Lord?” Our efforts to battle against the passions and the sinful thoughts must be a war wages both by our own struggles along with the Divine Grace that we receive through participating in the sacramental life of the Church (baptism, chrismation, confession, the eucharist, etc..) This Grace constitutes the glove that covers our hand, for just as without the glove all we would do is cut up our hands, so without Grace our struggles against the passions will only make us a punching bag for the demons. Even with Divine Grace though this is a long and difficult work. Just as is the case that often when pulling a weed we only end up tearing off the part that’s above the surface while leaving the root planted firmly within the soil, leaving us to have to dig deeply into the soil to grab the root, so it is with the passions. Only making an effort once to banish sinful thoughts won’t expel them from our hearts but we must constantly wage war against them, just as we must continually dig into the soil to uproot the weeds. And just as there are many weeds to be found in our garden, so there are many passions lingering within our hearts and we must struggle to uproot them all; lust, greed, sloth, envy, wrath, despair, gluttony, etc..
Having made this much progress we are ready to begin to plant the seeds in our gardens. Though we have made it this far does not mean that we no longer need to continue the previous work, far from it! Now we must labor even harder to keep the trash off, to keep the soil tilled, and to keep the weeds out, lest what grows out of the soil becomes choked out! We must continue to be watchful over our words and actions and to detach ourselves from idolatrous outlooks. We must continue to take up our inner-cross, and we must continue to work with God to root out the passions and to banish all sinful thoughts, images, impressions, and feelings. Now, the seeds are as Christ says, “the word of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:18) and these words must not fall only on the ground, lest they be eaten up by the birds (Matthew 13:4) – which are the demons snatching from us the teaching of Christ – but they must be planted firmly within the ground. We must plant the words, teachings, and commandments of Christ deep within our hearts, and most importantly, to do them! The seeds also represent the virtues; love, mercy, meekness, gentleness, poverty of spirit, etc… “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22) We must continually contemplate and cultivate the teachings of Christ within us and we must continually strive to cultivate the virtues within us, all the meanwhile keeping up our former labors to ensure the we will produce of good harvest.
Now we have reached the point where we have reached the limit of our struggles. We have gone to our garden, we have cleaned it up, tilled the soil, pulled the weeds, and planted the seeds. Now we are entirely dependent on getting the amount of darkness, light, and watering necessary for the seeds to develop and to grow forth into a good harvest. Just as man can only work so hard against the passions without Divine Grace, so to bear spiritual fruit requires the Divine Energy to co-operate with our labors to produce the spiritual harvest. The darkness represents the Father, who appeared to Moses cloaked in a dark cloud (Exodus 20:21), the sunlight is Christ Himself who is the “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2), and the water is the Holy Spirit who is the “Stream of Living Water” (John 7:38-39). The Divine Energies, ie: Grace, that come forth from the Holy Trinity to us through the mysteries of the Church (though not exclusively) give life, energy, and growth to our labors to produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) just as the elements of darkness, sunlight, and water give life, energy, and growth to the seeds in the garden to bear forth a plentiful harvest. This work requires both our own efforts and the Grace of God, “For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me.” (Colossians 1:29) This is our spiritual labor on the path of salvation; this is the cultivation of the garden of the heart.