I have been reading The Way of a Pilgrim, recently, which is a Russian peasant’s account of his discovery of the prayer of the heart. The anonymous author had lost his father and wife to an illness, and been dispossessed by a worthless brother, who had also crippled him when they were younger. Henceforth, the man becomes a beggar, and then, after hearing in Church St. Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing”, a pilgrim to discover what the inner or hidden meaning of this was.
Somehow, he obtains a copy of the Philokalia, and literally learns it by heart from reading it every day. Additionally, his old starets sometimes appears to him in a dream, and offers him guidance, not only spiritual but even to face physical challenges, such as curing an old woman who has been kind to the pilgrim.
“It costs nothing but the effort to sink down in silence into the depths of one’s heart and call more and more upon the radiant name of Jesus. Everyone who does that feels at once the inward light, everything becomes understandable to him, he even catches sight in this light of some of the mysteries of the kingdom of God. And what depth and light there is in the mystery of a man coming to know that he has this power to plumb the depths of his own being, to see himself from within, to find delight in self-knowledge, to take pity on himself and shed tears of gladness over his fall and his spoiled will!”
It should be instantly apparent to the unbiased reader (whomever they may desire to appear to themselves) that here we have no “life-denying” or purely passive “asceticism. On the contrary, this is spoken of as an active power corresponding to the alchemical stage of rubedo. You see that they are spoken of as “tears of gladness“.
There is no doubt that “Semitic” spirituality in a purely “exoteric” sense has included many “life-denying” elements in propagating what appeared to it to be truths. However, we need to make a point that the division exoteric-esoteric is itself part of the problem (as Cologero has alluded to). It is to think in terms of division, separation. Well, this is the problem to begin with! Because “esotericism” departs (or is corrupted), the “exoteric” shell attempts to preserve “Christendom” inside of formulations from which Life has departed. Likewise, esotericism without exoteric landmarks can be dark paths indeed. The thing is to unite the two! Or, rather, to see that they are already One.
The pilgrim refers to the Almighty as the “merciful and man-loving God“. This will be too “materialistic” or even “humanistic” for Gnostics, just as the Virgin Mary has always scandalized certain highly spiritual individuals (St. Francis designed the manger creche to confound them).
“Everyone does what he can, as he sees his own path, with the thought that God himself shows the way of his salvation.” This will be not rigid enough for the Pharisees in Christendom, who wish everything to be “made clear”.
“The mysterious sighing of creation, the innate aspiration of every soul toward God, that is exactly what interior prayer is. There is no need to learn it, it is innate in every one of us.” This will irritate the Protestants (who hate Nature) & those who wish (like General Namaan) for mightier tasks than bathing in the Jordan to cure their leprosy.
The volume is not the work of a saint or scholar, but a peasant, who comes to know God through “the Jesus prayer” of hesychasm (which interestingly enough, receives various emphasis or stresses on its syllables, according to the inner spiritual gift of the person praying the prayer). The starets comes to him in a dream, and even points out which portions of the Philokalia to read first, and in what order.
As we wander through the desert of Modernity, a pithy man points out that even in God’s “separation” from the modern world, the spiritual man ought to begin to learn to discern signs of His presence, for He can never be finally absent. No decayed corpus of Christendom can prove the lack of His, the Lord’s, power. No collapse of the West can prove that, after all, God is mocked. The Supreme Lord will not be mocked, no matter how large scale the rebellion is, nor does His mercy fail even in the dark.
I think a reader here recommended (for which I thank him) The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life, by Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, which my wife bought me for father’s day. There is little doubt that out of the “wreckage” we can salvage, not merely “much”, or even “all” that we need, but abundantly more so. God has littered the landscape with many treasures, and books such as these testify to an inner heart of Christianity which has existed even during the seemingly dead days of being buried under ground. In fact, since the heart is alive, the body remains as well – not the body the Pharisees promulgate, but the body of the Lord. For instance, Garrigou-Lagrange distinguishes, in direct and explicit parallel to Dionysius’ tradition, the three inner stages of purgation, illumination, and union, and what happens when one gets stuck along the way, in between one of the stages. Are any readers here stuck in a spiritual stage they do not understand? He goes on to explain that God the All-Merciful converts a man where he is at. This, by the way, is why the conversion begins in the senses, and doesn’t include the soul or spirit to begin with: God isn’t going to make someone enlightened against their will! He begins with the beginning stage. When they are purged as to senses, then a purgation of the soul commences, but is “illuminated” in this more difficult stage: the person now loves not only with the heart, but with strength. The last conversion is a movement into spirit, in which God is loved with the “soul” (spirit), and finally attains intellectual and perfect and near-continuous (at least) union with God.
As one can see, this involves a “taking up” of each lower part into a higher part, along with a move of consciousness to the higher plane. From the “sensual” plane, soul and spirit are one. Only from the soul plane does one even begin to intuit that there are higher regions still. And what comes after this? The Self Beyond the Self?
Look about you, if not in your tradition, then some tradition fit for you. Seek it, and find it: you will seek what you find anyway. It is ultimately not a concept or even an “ideal” (although it certainly will make use of both along the way), but a path which you already know, as the Russian peasant pilgrim already knew, when he set out on his journey, that he would find his Lord.
By the way, if you have fallen, a repentance equal or greater in fervor than the sin which was committed will re-instate your “talents” and place you back upon the Ladder. The thing is to climb.