ST. BASIL the Great says: One cannot approach the knowledge of the truth with a disturbed heart. Therefore we must try to avoid everything that disturbs our heart, that causes forgetfulness, excitement or passion, or that awakens unrest. We must free ourselves as much as possible from all fuss and flutter and ado over vain things. Yes, when we serve the Lord we shall not be troubled about many things, but always keep in mind that one thing is needful (Luke 10:41).
In order to bathe one must first undress. So it is with the heart: it must be set free from the world's outer covering in order to be accessible to the Cleanser. The healthful rays of the sun cannot reach the skin if we do not first uncover it and stand naked. So it is with the Spirit's healing and life-giving power.
Thus: undress. Deny yourself, but without it being too noticeable, everything that contributes to enjoyment and pleasure, comfort or entertainment, everything that is amusing or caresses the eyes, ears, palate or other senses. He that is not with me is against me (Matthew 12:30), and what does not build up, tears down. Peel off your every day needs and social habits: do so calmly, deliberately, without too sudden transition, yet thoroughly. Gradually clip off as many strings as possible that bind you to the external world: invitations, concerts, personal property, and especially all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, for it is not of the Father but is of the world, and it wages war against your soul (I John 2:16).
What is the world, then? You ought not to imagine it as something sinful and tangible. The world, explains St. Macarius of Egypt, is the veil of dark flames that surround the heart and shut it out from the tree of life. The world is everything that holds us and satisfies us sensuously: that within us which has not known God (John 17:25). To the world belong our desires and impulses. St. Isaac the Syrian enumerates them: Weakness for wealth and for collecting and owning things of different kinds; the urge for physical (sensuous) enjoyment; the longing for honour, which is the root of envy; the desire to conquer and be the deciding factor; pride in the glory of power; the urge to adorn oneself and to be liked; the craving for praise; concern and anxiety for physical well-being. All these are of the world; they combine deceitfully to hold us in heavy bonds.
If you wish to free yourself, scrutinize yourself with the help of that list and see clearly what you have to struggle against in order to approach God. For friendship with the world is enmity with God, and whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God (James 4:4). Broad vistas are attained only by leaving the narrow valley and the occupations and pleasures characteristic of the valley. No man can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24); to sojourn at the same time in the valley and on the heights is impossible.
To ease the upward climb and the more readily cast off the heavy burdens, you can as often as possible ask yourself such questions, for example, as these: Is it for my own or for someone else's pleasure that I am now going to this concert or to the cinema? Am I crucifying my flesh at a cocktail party? Am I going and selling all I possess by taking a pleasure trip or buying this book? Am I keeping under my body and bringing it into subjection (I Corinthians 9:27) by lying down to read? The questions can be altered and added to according to your own habits and their relation to the way of life the Gospel commands. Thereupon you should remember that he that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much (Luke 16:10). And do not fear the pain; it helps you out of the narrow valley, where you lived in the passions of your flesh, following the desires of body and mind (Ephesians 2:3).
Without mercy you should ask yourself such questions continually and incessantly. But ask them of yourself only. Never in any case, not even in thought, of another. As soon as you direct such a question outward to your fellow man and not inward to yourself, you have set yourself on a judgment seat and thereby judged yourself. You have robbed yourself of what you had won by your own continence; you have taken one step forward but ten backward: and then you have reason to weep over your obstinacy, your failure to improve, and your pride.