Let us suppose that a beneficial thought has been accepted by and occupies our attention. Now we must hasten to lead it to a level of awakening at which it will become a strong linchpin, easily and powerfully leading all our inward parts into action. For this we must give it a wide berth to pass inward, and for that we must perform, let us say, an operation on ourselves as the most necessary and most effective preparation for awakening.
Such an operation should be in opposition to those subtle nets, or against the habits and inclinations that imprison a person in sin. Sin entangles a soul by its many nets, or hides itself from the soul by its many coverings; because sin is ugly in and of itself, and one glance finds it repulsive. The covering that is deepest and closest to the heart is comprised of self-deception, insensitivity and carelessness; over them and closer to the surface lie absent-mindedness and much-caring, the chief players, which hide and feed sin and sinful habits and conditions. The uppermost covering is prevalence of the flesh, which is the most visible covering, no less strong and significant.
The first covering (self-deception, insensitivity and carelessness) is the essential one. It prevents the person from seeing the danger of his condition and undercuts his desire to change. The second two are essentially only instruments — they only magnify and support the sinful condition. When divine grace comes unto the separation of soul and spirit, it strikes directly against the first covering and tears it apart. Under its action the sinful person is completely uncovered and stands before his own consciousness in all his ugliness. But when the person is seeking grace-filled awakening himself, he has to begin from the outside and work his way in.
Thus, if you want to properly contemplate the thought that has been presented to you about your sinful life, begin by removing the sinful coverings as one would remove layers of earth in order to expose a treasure buried beneath.
First of all, go after the body. Refuse it delights and pleasures, restrict indulgences in even the most natural needs; lengthen the hour of vigil, decrease the usual amount of food, add labor to labor. Mainly, in whatever way you want or are able, lighten the flesh, thin its corpulence. Through this the soul will free itself of the bonds of matter, will become more energetic, lighter, and more receptive to good impressions. The material body prevailing over the soul communicates to the soul the body's lethargy and coldness. Physical ascetic labors weaken these bonds and eliminate their effects. True, not every sinner lives unrestrainedly and indulges the body. But it would be hard to find an individual in normal life who does not have something he would do well to refuse the body once the desire for salvation touches his heart. And the goal is very significant — it completely changes one's activity. What you have done previously according to habit, or in support of your usual occupations, you now begin to do with some changes and additional austerity for the sake of salvation — and there will be tangible results.
Cares and Scattered Thoughts.
The body burdens the soul from the outside; cares and scattered thoughts wear it down from within. Let us suppose that the flesh is already humbled — this, the first step, was taken. But two barriers divide the soul from its own self.
Cares do not leave any time to work on oneself. When they are present, you have one matter on your hands and ten more in your head. That is why they push a person always further onward, not giving him the opportunity to look back and see himself. Therefore, you must put aside cares for a time, all without exception. You will take up your usual affairs later on, but for now let them cease, fling them from your hands and throw them out of your thoughts.
But once the cares have ceased, the whirlwind still remains in the head — one thought after another, one in agreement, another diametrically opposed. The soul is scattered, and the mind swings in different directions and thus does not allow you to retain anything lasting and steadfast. Collect your scattered children into one, like a pastor gathers his flock, or like a glass gathers scattered rays, and turn them back on yourself.
The desire to go deeper within yourself and work on yourself, to cut off your scattered thoughts and cares, of course inevitably requires the following means: solitude on one hand and on the other, cessation of usual occupations both personal and duty-related. First of all, this humbling of the flesh requires a change in the way you satisfy your natural needs. In this light, the most convenient time to change your life should be considered to be during a fast, especially Great Lent. Everything is set up for this during Lent — at home, in church, and even in society. During this time everything is looked upon as preparation for repentance. Just the same, this does not mean that when the beneficial thought has come to change your life, you should put off its fulfillment until the Fast begins. Everything required during this time can be fulfilled at any other time, other than the fasting. But when the holy Fast has arrived it is a sin to miss the chance to take care for the salvation of your soul, as it is often missed at another time. If anyone who has had the salvific thought outside of the Fast to change his life, and whose hinders him from carrying it out, it would be better for him to retreat for a time to a monastery. There it will be easier for him to master himself.
Carelessness, Insensitivity and Blindness.
Now you stand before your heart. Before you is your inner man, sunk in the deep slumber of carelessness, insensitivity and blindness. Begin to awaken it. The beneficial thought that came has already troubled it a little. Step up to it with great good hope and mighty mental exertion, collecting all your attention, and begin to force on yourself various ideas, more or less strong and startling, accepting them all into your inner state.
First of all remove the veils from the eyes of your mind that keep your mind in a state of blindness. If a person does not deny sin and run from it, then that is because he does not know himself and the danger he is in for the sake of his sin. If his eyes were opened he would run from sin as he would run from a house engulfed in flames. Such blindness is the result of inattentiveness to himself — the person does not know himself because he has never entered inside himself, and has never thought about himself or his moral condition. But for the most part his blindness is supported by certain prejudices concerning himself. The person creates a net of thoughts, systematically closing himself off to himself. Perhaps these thoughts are but as spider webs — that is, they are of the slightest probability, but the mind never took them apart carefully, and the heart speaks very loudly of their reality and truthfulness. This is moral delusion or prejudice which comes from the heart's intrusion into things belonging to the reason. That is why it is necessary to unite particular soberness to deep attention at this moment, renouncing every deceit of an evil heart. If the heart needs to feel something at this moment, let it feel it under the influence of the mind's formulations, and not all by itself, sort of running ahead. Otherwise it will again force the reason to imagine things as the heart likes; again it will force the reason to submit to the heart, again bringing disorder to the understanding and, instead of enlightening, it will only sink it into deeper blindness.
An excerpt from "The Path to Salvation" By St.Theophan the Recluse