Part of the work I do at St. Matthew’s involves collaborating with other folks in the neighbourhood who are doing good work towards the same general end as us which, broadly stated, is continually learning to better love our neighbours. One of the other communities which we have managed to connect with and hope to deepen our friendship with is St. John’s Mission (fabulous place, check them out online at the very least). Part of the mission is their Lived Theology School (LTS) which is basically a one-year residential program where students come and study theology, enjoy fellowship, and get their hands dirty by participating in the life of the mission. Every now and then they have a few “open days”, one of which I was able to participate in today. The theme was “Basic Elements of Orthodox Spirituality” which is a topic I was interested in anyways and so it was a joy to attend.
OK, that was a bit of an extended introduction. One of the bits that I found especially interesting was the Orthodox understanding of the stages of sin. This has been written about by various authors and Church Fathers. Outlined below are the stages:
(1) The suggestion or “thought” (or, “impact”).
This is the initial thought that arises spontaneously. Many of the Fathers understood this “thought” to be the form demonic influence takes in human consciousness which tends towards sin. This stage is the first attack against vigilance (or, alertness/sobriety). It should be noted that each of these stages is a further attack upon sobriety until, as we will see, one’s vigilance is utterly defeated.
(2) The coupling or “connection”.
At this stage one becomes aware and begins to dialogue with the thought. Here, one can reject the thought outright or we can entertain it in dialogue. To dialogue is a further weakening of vigilance. One’s attention is “fettered to the object”. The important bit to note about this stage and the prior one is that the Fathers did not consider these stages to be sinful because there is not yet consent.
(3) Consent or acceptance.
Here vigilance is defeated as one delightedly yields the soul to what it has encountered. See for example the teaching of Jesus in the gospels re: anger and lust. It is here, at this stage, that sin occurs.
Full acceptance of the idea occurs and instills itself in the soul, leading the soul to action.
This is the accomplishment of an external act which has already been consented to.
(6) The passion.
Finally, consent has become habitual. The Fathers refer to this as the “sickness of the soul”.
It’s all quite interesting. For me the bit that really stands out is the fact that the Fathers did not regard the first two stages (some even included the third stage) as sin. It’s also a sort of inversion of the stages of the Orthodox understanding of the spiritual life.