Isaac describes the ascetic life as a constant variation between periods of ‘assistance’ and ‘feebleness’, presence and abandonment, spiritual ups and downs. Periods of abandonment and spiritual decay are necessary for a person so that he may feel his helplessness and dependence upon God. Abandonment is not a withdrawal of God from a person: it is a subjective feeling of God’s absence, the reason for which is not that this person is really forgotten by God but that God wants to leave him alone with the reality that surrounds him. Thus Anthony the Great was for many days left alone to struggle against the demons; when he was completely exhausted, God appeared to him as a ray of light. ‘Where were You?’ Anthony asked, ‘why didn’t you come in the beginning, to stop my sufferings?’ The voice of God answered to him: ‘I was here, Anthony, but I waited as I wanted to see your own struggle’. God wishes that through the experience of abandonment a person may gain his own victory and become worthy of Him.
The feeling of abandonment takes place for various reasons. Sometimes the reason is a person’s own negligence, shortness of patience, as well as pride. In this case abandonment appears as faint-heartedness and despondency, which is a hell on earth:
When it is God’s pleasure to subject a man to even greater afflictions, He permits him to fall into the hands of faint-heartedness. This begets in him a mighty force of despondency, wherein he feels his soul to be suffocated. This is a foretaste of Gehenna. From this there is unleashed upon him: the spirit of aberration, from which ten thousand trials gush forth; confusion; wrath; blasphemy; protesting and bewailing one’s lot; perverted thoughts; wandering from place to place; and the like. And if you should ask what the cause of these things is, I answer that it is you yourself, for the reason that you have not taken pains to find the remedy for them. The remedy for them is… humility of heart.
The feeling of abandonment may also take place for reasons which do not depend on a person. In particular, periods of abandonment, depression, darkening and despair happen to ascetics who live in stillness. In this case the reason is the ineffable providence of God: Let us not be troubled when we are found in darkness, especially if the cause of this is not in us. But reckon this as the work of God’s providence for a reason which He alone knows. At times our soul is suffocated and is, as it were, amid the waves; and whether a man reads the Scriptures, or performs his liturgy, or approaches anything whatever, he receives darkness upon darkness. He leaves off prayer and cannot even draw nigh to it. He is wholly unable to believe that a change will occur and that he will be at peace. This hour is full of despair and fear; hope in God and the consolation of faith are utterly wiped out from his soul, and she is wholly and entirely filled with doubt and fear.
However, Isaac continues, God does not leave the soul in this state for a long time. After the period of despair, a change for the better should take place: ‘Those who are tried by the billows of this hour know from experience the change that follows upon its completion. God does not leave the soul in these things an entire day, for otherwise she would perish, being estranged from the Christian hope; but He speedily provides her with an escape’.
What should an ascetic do during the periods of abandonment and darkness? A normal piece of advice would be to pray until this period is over: ‘During periods of these temptations, when someone is darkened, he ought to fall on his face in prayer, and not rise up until power come to him from heaven and a light which will support his heart in a faith that has no doubts’. Another piece of advice is to remember one’s initial zeal and early years of the ascetic life. Yet another recommendation is to occupy oneself with the reading of patristic writings. ‘Scriptural reading’ casts away despondency and darkness from the soul.
However, there might be such a degree of abandonment and despondency, when a person cannot find strength in himself either to read the Scriptures or to pray. In these circumstances, Isaac offers the following recommendation:
“If you do not have the strength to master yourself and to fall upon your face in prayer, then wrap your head in your cloak and sleep until this hour of darkness pass from you, but do not leave your dwelling. This trial befalls those especially who desire to pass their life in the discipline of the mind, and who throughout their journey seek the consolation of faith. For this reason their greatest pain and travail is the dark hour when their mind wavers with doubt. And blasphemy follows hard upon this. Sometimes the man is seized by doubts in the resurrection, and by other things whereof we have no need to speak. Many times we have experienced all these things, and we have written of this struggle for the comfort of many… Blessed is he who patiently endures these things within the doors of his cell! Afterwards, as Fathers say, he will attain to a magnificent and powerful dwelling.” At the same time, Isaac continues, it is impossible to liberate oneself completely from periods of darkening and abandonment, and to reach perfect rest in this earthly life. A variation of periods of darkness and light is characteristic of the life of the solitary until the very hour of his death: ‘Sometimes trial, sometimes consolation. A man continues in these things until his departure. In this life we should not expect to receive perfect freedom from this struggle, nor to receive perfect consolation’.