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PASSIONS, LIKE VIRTUES, are also interconnected, just as "links of a single chain" (St. Isaac of Nitria), one being an offshoot of another. There are eight of them; in the order of birth they are as follows 1) gluttony, 2) lust, 3) avarice, 4) anger, 5) despondency, 6) despair, 7) vainglory, and 8) pride.

The main concern of patristic asceticism is not with external manifestations of sin, nor individual instances of sin, but rather with their cause, i.e., the vices and passions rooted in the soul, or diseases of the soul and hidden inner states of sin. Using contemporary terms and concepts, Professor Zarin expounds the teaching of the Holy Fathers about the psychology of passion and the struggle with it. Here is a brief resume of this exposition.

A thought is the initial moment in the emergence of a passion; it is a moment of hesitation and an essential central element of this psychological state.[1] The essence of asceticism amounts to the struggle with thoughts. The Holy Fathers, ascetics, discern as many as [six or] seven moments in the development and growth of passions.


The first impetus to the emergence of the psychological phenomenon which may end as passion is known as a "provocation" or "suggestion" (prilog).

It is a conception of an object or an action corresponding to one of the stained inclinations within a person. Under the influence of external impressions, or in connection with the psychological working of the memory or imagination according to the laws of association, this provocation enters the sphere of man's consciousness. This first moment takes place independently of man's free will, against his wish, without his participation, in accordance with the laws of psychological inevitability—"spontaneity"—and is, therefore, considered "innocent" or dispassionate. It does not incriminate man in sin if it is not caused by his "wandering" thoughts, if it is not invited consciously and voluntarily, and if a person is not negligent about it. This is the touchstone for testing our will, to see whether it will be inclined towards virtue or vice. It is in this choice that the free will of man manifests itself. [2]


Provocation evokes the response of the feeling, which reacts to the impression or image intruding upon the consciousness by either "love" or "hate" (sympathy or antipathy). This is the most important moment, for it decides the fate of the provoking thought: will it stay, or will it flee? It is only the emergence of this thought in the consciousness that occurs regardless of the will of man. If it is not immediately rejected and lingers on, this means that in the nature of a given person it finds compatable ground, which is expressed in his sympathetic reaction to the provocation. Sympathetic inclination attracts attention, allowing the suggested thought to grow and turn into an image of fantasy pervading the entire sphere of consciousness and ousting all other impressions and thoughts. Attention lingers at the thought because man delights in it. This second moment is called
conversation or conjunction (sochetanie). St. Ephraim the Syrian
defines it as a "free acceptance of the thought, its entertainment,
as it were, and a conversation with it accompanied by delight." In
the contemporary language of psychology this means that the second
moment in the development of the thought lies in the following man's
attention is directed exclusively to the newly arisen impression or
notion, which serves as an impetus or cause for the development of a
whole series of associated notions. These notions give man the
feeling of pleasure while anticipating the enjoyment of the object of
the impression or notion obtained. In order to cut off the sequence
of notions, to remove it from his consciousness, and to terminate the
feeling of delight, man needs to distract his attention. He must
actively and firmly resolve to rebut the images of sin assailing him
and not return to them again.


Otherwise, with the absence of willful rejection of the intruding
images, the third moment is induced, when the will itself becomes
increasingly attracted to the thought, and as a result man becomes
inclined to act upon what the thought tells him and to get the
satisfaction of partaking of it. At this time the equilibrium of his
spiritual life is totally destroyed, the soul wholly surrenders
itself to the thought and strives to realize it with the purpose of
experiencing an even more intense delight. Thus, the third moment is
characterized by the inclination of will towards the object of the
thought, by its agreement and resolve to realize pleasurable
fantasies. Consequently, in the third moment the whole will
surrenders to the thought and now acts according to its directives in
order to realize its fantastic plans. This moment, called joining
(slozhenie), is the cooperation of the will, which is a declaration
of agreement with the passion whispered by the thought (St. Ephraim
the Syrian), or consent of the soul to what has been presented to it
by the thought, accompanied by delight (St. John of the Ladder). This
state is already "approaching the act of sin and is akin to it" (St.
Ephraim the Syrian). There comes the willful resolve to attain the
realization of the object of the passionate thought by all means
available to man. In principle, the decision has already been made to
satisfy the passion. Sin has already been committed in intention. It
now remains to satisfy the sinful desire, turning it into a concrete


Sometimes, however, before man's final decision to proceed to this
last moment, or even after such a decision, he experiences a struggle
between the sinful desire and the opposite inclination of his nature.


However, the last psychological moment of an unstable vacillation of
the will between opposing inclinations takes place only when the
habit has not yet been formed within the soul, namely, the "bad
habit" of responding to the evil thought. It takes place when a
sinful inclination has not yet deeply penetrated man's nature and
become a constant feature of his character, a familiar element of his
disposition, when his mind is constantly preoccupied with the object
of the passionate urge, when the passion itself has not yet been
completely formed.


When in the power of passion, man gladly and violently rushes to
satisfy this passion, either without any struggle at all, or almost
without a struggle. He is losing the dominant, guiding and
controlling power of his volitional faculty over individual
inclinations and demands of volitional nature. It is no longer the
will that rules over sinful inclinations, but the latter rule over
the will, forcibly and wholly enticing the soul, compelling its
entire rational and active energy to concentrate on the object of
passion. This state is called captivity (plenenie). This is the
moment of the complete development of a passion, of the fully
established state of the soul, which now manifests all of its energy
to the utmost. [3]

"The best and the most successful struggle takes place when the
thought is cut off by means of an unceasing prayer at the very start.
For, as the Fathers have said, whoever opposes the initial thought,
i.e., the provocation, will stop its subsequent disposition at once.
A wise ascetic destroys the mother of wicked fiends, i.e., the
cunning provocation (first thoughts). At the time of prayer, above
all else, one's intellect should be rendered deaf and mute (St. Nilus
of Sinai), and one's heart emptied of any thoughts, even a seemingly
good thought (St. Hesychius of Jerusalem). Experience has shown that
the admission of a dispassionate thought, i.e., a distraction, is
followed by an impassioned (wicked) one, and that the entry of the
first opens the door to the latter." [4]

This inner struggle is vividly portrayed to us by St. Hesychius of
Jerusalem (5th century), a disciple of St. Gregory the Theologian:

No. 145. Our mind, being something of light appearance and innocent,
easily gives itself over to daydreaming and is unrestrainedly subject
to evil thoughts, if it does not have in itself such a concept which,
like a monarch over the passions, holds it constantly under control
and bridles it.

No. 168. A ship does not move without water; and there is no progress
whatsoever in the guarding of the mind without sobriety with humility
and prayer to Jesus Christ.

No. 169. Stones are used for the foundation of a house; but for this
virtue (the guarding of the mind) both the foundation and the root
are the holy and venerable name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quickly and
easily can a foolish captain wreck his ship during a storm,
dismissing the sailors, throwing the sails and oars into the sea, and
going to sleep himself; but much more quickly can the soul be drowned
by the demons if, when the thoughts begin to emerge, it does not
guard sobriety, and invoke the name of Jesus Christ.

No. 94. Sobriety and the Jesus Prayer mutually reinforce one another;
for extreme watchfulness goes with the content of constant prayer,
while prayer goes with extreme sobriety and watchfulness of intellect.

No. 88. Many of our thoughts come from demonic suggestions, and from
these derive our evil outward actions. If with the help of Jesus we
instantly quell the thought, we will avoid its corresponding outward
action. We will enrich ourselves with the sweetness of divine
knowledge and so will find God, Who is everywhere. Holding the mirror
of the intellect firmly towards God, we will be illumined constantly
as pure glass is by the sun. Then finally the intellect, having
reached the limit of its desires, will in Him cease from all other
contemplation. [5]


1. There are three main moments 1) the appearance of a concept, 2)
the adding to it of the feeling, and 3) the adding to it of the will.
(Mind, feeling, will: a concept, in conjunction with feeling and with
the addition of the will.)

2. There are two causes for the occurrence of "provocation," natural
causes and evil spirits.

3. Zarin, Asceticism, Vol. 1, Book 2, pp. 248-258.

4. St. Nilus of Sora (Moscow, 1869), p. 19.

5. St. Hesychius of Jerusalem, Exhortations on Watchfulness and
Prayer (Moscow, 1890). [English translation in The Philokalia (G.E.H.
Palmer, et. al.), Vol. I.]


This excerpt is from The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient
Russia, by I.M. Kontzevich (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska
Brotherhood, 1988), Ch. 2, pp. 39-43. It is a modern classic, and
basically a "textbook on ascetism."