Dispassion is a little like what Buddhists call “non-attachment.” The Church Fathers talk about dispassion intimately as a goal to achieve in order to separate ourselves from those thoughts that block our receptivity to God. Often when we read of suffering in the lives of the saints they are talking about spiritual suffering. This kind of suffering may be accompanied by physical pain and torture leading to martyrdom, but not necessarily so.
The very condition of being separate from God in which we find ourselves as limited and imperfect human beings is in itself a form of suffering. The less we are like God the more our suffering intensifies. The more we can literally put off the concerns of worldly ambitions like greed, self-sufficiency, material comforts, fame, and self-preservation the more we situate ourselves to become more like God. The world is not an end in itself, but a means for God to reach us and a means for us to become one with God.
Whoever walks lowly always walks securely and never falls. This is why we should uproot, as far as we can, the worldly concern to project ourselves and achieve worldly success, which leads to spiritual failure. We should reject hidden and obvious egoism and the superficial need to be liked by others, so we can come to love Christ most sincerely. Our time is not characterized by what is discreet and noiseless. It is good to do what is well within our means, quietly, without ambitious displays beyond our capabilities, because otherwise it will be at the expense of our soul and body, and often at a high cost to the Church as well.
Elder Paisios of Mount Athos
Spiritual Counsels, Volume II
(via Orthodox Echoes)
As a Protestant the life of prayer to me was whittled down to a short prayer and a morning devotional. There was no persistent teaching or tradition in the church to give me tools to do the things to become more like God in my daily practice. It was not enough to read Micah 6:8 and Paul’s various admonitions to churches regarding what they ought to do or how they were making a royal mess out of things. My question was simple: What does it look like if I put these things into practice? The Elders of the early church did just that and formed a well spring of tradition with their experience of God as its source.
Rather than come up with some new way of doing things that might be more “relevant” or suit my perceived needs more effectively, I had to get honest. The Church Fathers and Mothers don’t offer an easy way. They tell us to be brutally honest with ourselves, God, and each other and that we have a chronic spiritual illness that only a radical change in our behaviors and beliefs can help resolve. There is work we need to do to cooperate with God to heal us.
Very few of us like honest and radical change. But without personal honesty to stare down the sickness we rarely work to remedy, we are a right lost bunch of sick souls pining for a cure. We know we are sick on some deep level. While God has the cure, it takes more than a pretty pill like Sunday worship to help us manage our illness in this life. Any doctor will tell you that there are proven ways to improve your life if you have a chronic illness. These go way beyond a pill. But these kinds of behavior changes are also the most difficult part of wellness.
Who really wants to take continual prayer, fasting, humility, and love of neighbor so seriously to require total life change that needs to be enacted every day for the rest of our lives? I know I struggle with it even though the answer is right in front of my face. Maybe I should be grateful that I do struggle. Not struggling is a symptom of ignorance. At the very least I can wake up knowing what I need to do every day to manage my chronic illness of sin that keeps me from peace in God. For that I am grateful and gratitude is but the beginning of awakening into the life of God.