It is impossible to determine theoretically how long one should exercise oneself in a virtue before becoming established in it. Everyone must determine this for himself, considering his state, circumstances and achievements in spiritual life, and especially according to the judgment of his staretz or the spiritual father who directs him. Still, if a man’s zeal for success is alive, and he does not stop at any difficulties or means, considerable progress will soon be shown.
The sign of progress is when, having entered the path of virtue, a man follows it diligently, with a firm resolve never to leave it, however hard it may be and whatever sacrifices it may entail, despite moments of cooling off and darkening of the soul, of spiritual impoverishment and of lack of the blessed joys, all which God in His providence for us allows to happen for your good.
The second and no less sure sign of progress is the degree of intensity of the war, which the flesh wages against good resolutions and actions. The more this battle loses its intensity, the more evident becomes the progress in virtue. So, when you do not feel any struggle or attacks on the part of your lower sensory nature, especially at times when occasions for exciting it are before your eyes, you may believe that your virtue has acquired sufficient strength. But if you begin to do your work on the path of virtue with greater readiness and spiritual joy than before, you may consider this a sign of progress in virtue, even more sure than subjugation of the flesh.
And on St. Isaac’s advice, ‘If you see that your mind is not being forced, but acts freely and presses forward in good thoughts, this is a sign of progress; in the same way when, standing in prayer, your mind does not wander hither and thither, and your tongue suddenly stops in the middle of a verse, and the shackles of silence are laid on your soul, without participation of your will; also, when you notice that with each good thought and memory arising in your soul, and with every spiritual contemplation your eyes are filled with tears, and they run freely down your cheeks, or when sometimes you see that your thought, of its own accord and independently of you, sinks into the depths of your heart and remains in this state for may be an hour, while peace reigns in your thoughts all these are signs of good progress on the path of the spiritual life you have undertaken’.
Yet it is wrong to be too sure that we are completely established in the desired virtue, or have finally overcome some passion, even if its impacts and impulses have not been experienced for a long time. For this may conceal the evil wiles of the man hater the devil and the craftiness of the sin which lives in us; for these things, which are of a quite different nature, are often seen by us in a good light and we accept them as good through the pride concealed in us. Moreover, if we think of the perfection to which God calls us, then, even if we have followed for a long time the path of virtue, we shall be the more ready to think that we have hardly made a start in the life we ought to lead, let alone being established in it. This is why the holy fathers call even the life of the most perfect men imperfect, that is, not free from faults.
‘Even the perfection of the perfect is not perfect’, says St. John, of the Ladder. And St. Paul sees perfection in constantly pressing on and on, with no looking back or thinking that we have already attained what we seek. Thus he calls himself imperfect, not having yet attained what he seeks. ‘Not as though I had already attained’ he says, ‘either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended : but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 3: 12-14). And wishing to show that this alone constitutes our perfection, he adds : ‘Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded’ (Phil 3: 15). In other words : perfection is not to think that we have reached perfection; the virtuous state is not to stand still but constantly to press forward towards virtue.