Guarding All the Senses in General  

What the Senses Are in General and What They Resemble 

With the help of God, I have to the extent of my ability commented briefly on each of the senses and indicated the harm that they can bring to the soul when they are abused. You need all of your strength to control these senses from passionate desires and to protect yourself from any evil form that they may bring upon you. These senses after all, are, as we have noted, those very doors and windows through which either life or death may enter. Life enters when they are gov­erned well and do not partake of their usual passions. Death enters when they partake of “corpses” as do the birds of prey; when they taste the dust of the earth as do the serpents; when they eat rotted food as do the flies. Or to put it in another way, when they partake of those sinful and death-bearing passions, which are harmful to the soul. This is why the prophet Jeremiah alluded to these senses when he said: “For death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces” (Jer 9:21). St. Gregory of Nyssa, interpreting this reference, explained that “the windows” through which death enters “our palace” are indeed the senses.[i] Make every effort then to purify your soul from the impurities which the senses bring within from the outside. These senses may be likened to mountain torrents, which as soon as they swell up with the force of abundant water from the winter rains drag downhill with them everything that happens to be in their way-rocks, logs, mud, and other debris.[ii] The senses too, when allowed free reign by the control­ling mind, are driven out with great force toward the physical things of life and thus draw with themselves every indecent vision, every shame­ful word, every evil sound, and generally every dirt and impurity of the passions. Afterward, when they return they bring back all these things into the troubled soul, causing it to be darkened, to be full of so many shameful images and so many conflicting sounds that, generally speaking, it is overwhelmed by the passions that make it into a den of thieves and a harbor of impurities. It was perhaps at a time when the prophet David was troubled by such torrents of the senses that he shouted to God in spiritual anguish: “The pangs of death surrounded me, and the torrents of iniquity sorely troubled me.” (Ps 17:4).

Why One Must Struggle to Control One's Senses 

According to St. Gregory the Theologian we must struggle to block our senses and to control them, for they are the easy ways toward evil and entrances of sin. Let us not give in to the easy ways of evil and to the easy entrances of sin. I say to you then, put all your strength forward to protect your senses. I also say to you to be attentive, to struggle, and I insist on this, by using various synonymous words. I wish to prove to you that the devil is always standing before us, observing and studying the condition of our senses. Just as soon as we open even one sense to him, he enters into our soul directly and brings death to us, as St. Isaac has noted: “The enemy is standing and observ­ing day and night directly against our eyes to detect which entrance of our senses will be opened to him to enter. Once he enters through one of our senses because of our lack of vigilance, then this devious shame­less dog attacks us further with his own arrows.”[iii] We must also strug­gle to protect our senses because it is not only through curious eyes that we fall into the sin of desire and commit fornication and adultery of the heart, as the Lord noted. There is also the fornication and the adultery of the sense of hearing, the sense of smell, the sense of taste, the sense of touch, and of all the senses together. Therefore, St. Greg­ory the Theologian has written in his heroic counsel to the virgin: “Virgin, be truly a virgin in the ears, in the eyes and in the tongue! Every sense that wanders with ease sins.” St. Gregory of Nyssa also said: “The Lord has spoken, I believe, about all the senses, so that following His words we can include that the one who hears lustfully, the one who touches and the one who uses every inner power in us to serve pleasure has actually committed the sin in his heart.”[iv] 

Those Who Live in the World Must Protect Their Senses More than Those Ascetics in the Desert  

You who are in the world, dear friend, must guard yourself even more than those who are in the desert. St. Basil wrote to someone living in the world the following advice: “Do not relax your efforts because you are in the world. In fact you are in need of greater efforts and more vigilance to achieve salvation. After all you have chosen to live in the midst of all the pitfalls and in the very stronghold of the sinful powers. You have before you constantly the instigations of sins and day and night all of your senses are being attacked by their evil desires.”[v] If we are overcome by the desire for food or drink, we do not experience such a strong attack. Being in a desolate place where one does not see or hear anything out of place or experience the other causes of sin, we are thus surrounded by a protective wall that helps to win our battles without wars, as St. Isaac said: “When one does not receive a sense perception, then he can have a victory without a struggle.”[vi] In other words, the monks who have removed themselves from the world are fighting behind trenches, but you are fighting an arm-to-arm combat against the enemies. The attacks are coming from all directions. And the causes of sin are all around you. While they stand afar off from the precipice, you are at its very edge. That great luminary of spiritual discretion, St. Poimen, once said: “Those who live far away from the world are like those who are far from a precipice and, whenever they are misled by the devil, before they reach the edge, they call upon God Who comes to save them. Those who live in the world, however, are like those who are near the precipice and when the devil draws them toward it, they have no time to call upon God and be saved but fall directly into the abyss.”[vii] Therefore, because you are so close to this abyss, you are in immediate danger just as soon as you neglect or open one of your senses. God forbid! This is the reason why you want to use all your energy to protect your senses from coming into contact with sin. As it is impossible for a house not to be darkened by smoke entering from the outside, it is similarly impossible for a man not to be harmed when he is not careful to guard his senses, but rather opens them without restraint, allowing all manner of passionate images to enter the soul. The wise St. Syngletike said, “Even when we do not want it, the thieves will enter through the senses. For how is it possible for a house not be darkened by the smoke entering from outside through the doors and windows that have been left opened?”  

How Can We Interpret the Aristotelian Axiom- “Nothing Is in the Mind That Has Not Previously Entered the Senses.” 

The famous axiom of the philosopher Aristotle which says that “noth­ing is in the mind that has not previously entered the sense” is indeed legendary. Many have written many opinions in favor and against the truth or falsehood of this axiom both in the past and now. In this case the proverb is apropos that says: ‘Inexpressible things are expressed and ineffable things are spoken’.”[viii] In view of this divided opinion, I shall say briefly that the axiom is false, if it refers to the virtues. Since the mind has been created by God as naturally good, it has received innately its appropriate good­ness from God. “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 2:31). “For everything created by God is good” (1Tim 4:4), as the Apostle wrote. Granted that at infancy and early childhood there is no other impression in man except perhaps the very impression of having no other good idea in mind that has entered through the senses and that the mind is simple, without forms and shapes and like an unwritten sheet of paper (a “tabula rasa”). Still, we must say that this simplicity which the mind has in itself is indeed one good thing, the original and the most appropriate to its nature. God created the mind to be pure and simple, as Scripture and the Fathers affirm.

The mind was thus created pure and simple without predeter­mined shapes so that its image may have similitude to its Creator Who is invisible. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him” (Gen 1:27). This way the mind can be united with the divine Archetype. Thus the whole struggle of secular and worldly philosophers is to fashion their minds with different ideas and imagi­nary knowledge of natural and human things. This is after all the whole power of secular philosophy. On the contrary, the whole strug­gle and effort and goal of virtuous and spiritual persons is how to erase from their minds every shape and image and thought that has been impressed upon it and to make it (again) simple and pure and unim­pressed by anything external, so that through such simplicity it may be united with God and restored to its original condition. This is the return about which the Lord spoke: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). Therefore the wise St. Neilos said: “Blessed is the mind that acquires in the time of prayer a complete absence of im­ages.”[ix] St. Basil too said: “As God does not dwell in temples created by hands, similarly He can not be contained by intellectual creations and expressions.” St. Diadochos also said: “The blessed light of God shines in the heart when the heart has been released from all and has become free of all. In the deprivation of all thoughts, that divine light is re­vealed to the pure mind.”[x]

      Now if we are to talk about the evil things that are in the mind, then I must say that Aristotle's axiom is most true. Evil is, after all, unnatural and a foreign element that has entered the nature of the mind, that was created good. Evil has no other way to enter the mind except through the senses from the outside. A ready proof and a trust­ful witness of this saying is Adam himself, that simple man who was the first to be created by the hand of God. Evil and the idea of sin entered into the mind of Adam not from inner thoughts, but from external influences through the senses, when the devil deceitfully ad­vised Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. This is confirmed by St. Macarios, who said about Adam the following: “Adam was created pure by God to serve him. . . . However, the devil approached him and spoke to him and it was from without through the hearing that he was first received. It was after this that the devil entered his heart and pervaded his entire being.”[xi] 

In What Way Can One Guard the Senses from the Passions? 

What should we conclude from this? That every idea of evil and every form of passion enters the heart through the mediation and service of the senses. And if the senses are not guarded, then the evil passions are also not guarded. How can they be guarded and closed to such pas­sions? Listen. The windows of the Temple of Solomon were covered with fine nets to prevent the entry of impure insects (cf. Ezk 41:6). This may serve as a reminder that he who does not want any impure pas­sions of the senses to enter into his soul must drape his senses with [spiritual] nets. What are these nets? It is the memory of death, for one; our account before Christ on the day of judgment; the memory of eternal suffering. Through these, man can put away the evil passions and sins, when they come before his eyes and his other senses. St. Neilos has confirmed that this is so: “Those who desire to keep their mind as a clean and pure temple, where the doors and windows are covered with fine nets to prevent the entry of any impure insects, must similarly cover their senses by meditating on the sobering realities of the future judgment which prevent the entry of any impure images to creep in.”[xii]

St. Isidore Pelousiotes also has taught us how to guard the senses from evil passions. He said that the mind of man must stand firm like a king and emperor with awesome thoughts which are armed like sol­diers to guard the entries of the senses and to prevent the enemies from entering. For, if they do not enter, the war and the victory will be easy. But if, on the contrary, they do enter then the war becomes difficult and the victory uncertain.[xiii] This is why you too, brother, can through these means guard and close the windows of your senses, so that all the evil passions that are commonly referred to as bodily and external can be readily overcome. But are we to overcome only these bodily and external passions? No, we must also overcome the inner passions of desire that are commonly called inner and spiritual. These, too, will gradually be weakened and overcome as the passions of the senses cease to enter and rule. This is why St. Poimen used to say: “When a serpent is shut within a vessel and does not receive any food, it will gradually die. So also with the inner passions of our heart, if they are isolated and do not receive the evil nourishment they need from the outside through the senses of the body, they in time are weakened and eventually die.”[xiv] Again the passions can be likened to certain tiny creatures found in the mud at the bottom of a lake. As long as they do not have anything to eat they are content to lie there in peace. But as soon as food is put into the water, you can see them immediately moving and rising up from the depth to get the food. In the same manner the passions remain peacefully within the heart as long as they do not receive from the outside through the senses any nourishment and pleasure. But as soon as such a pleasure enters, espe­cially through the eyes, these passions move directly toward the desir­able nourishment. 

The Devil Dies When He Does Not Receive the Pleasure of the Senses 

Since the devil has as nourishment the passions and pleasures of the senses, he too will die as he is deprived of this nourishment. “The strong lion perishes for lack of prey” (Job 4:11). St. Neilos has noted that the devil is often referred to as an “ant-lion,” just as the passions are. This means that at first these passions appear as something very small, but later become great and strong like lions. Do you see, dear brother, what great enemies you have to defeat? Do you see that by cutting off the passions of the senses, you are also going to put Satan to death? But alas this cutting off and this victory cannot be won without a war. It is like the external wars, no one can win a victory without first waging a war against the enemy. It is certain that you have to experi­ence a great struggle in each of your senses both from the point of view of habit and of the enemy. For the bad habit desires to draw each sense toward its pleasurable object when it is present. On the other hand, the enemy desires to wage a great battle in the memory and imagination of the mind in order to achieve its consent to enjoy that pleasure, so that, in doing so, the devil can also enjoy the same pleasure. But you must stand courageously and never consent to the will of the enemy. Say to yourself that iambic proverb of St. Gregory the Theologian: “No one can excel by beginning from cowardice; it is the victories that bring praise.”

      An ancient people recognized their children to be their genuine offspring only after placing before them a viper and observing them catch it courageously. You too, dear brother, must make the enemy realize that you are a true child of Christ Who is your heavenly Father, and who has overcome the passions and the devil-through the cour­age you demonstrate in fighting against the evil passions of your senses. And if the enemy stands to fight you, be not afraid to tell him what that brave Spartan said to Xerxes: “Oh king, you managed to sail the sea and to cut a channel across the peninsula of Athos, but you will not pass the side of one armed Spartan.” For this reason then show the enemy that you are not a slave of your senses, but lord and king. Show that you are not only flesh and blood, but a rational mind, appointed by God to be leader and sole ruler over the irrational passions of the body. Say to yourself that wise proverb about evil habits: “The best learning for man is to unlearn evil.” Now, if I have learned, wrongly, to give to my senses their sensual objects, and this wrong learning has brought about a bad habit, and this bad habit a still further bad condi­tion, why can I not now learn to do the opposite? Let, therefore, the good learning become a good habit and the good habit a good and permanent condition. If, in doing this, I am to experience difficulties and bitterness at first, let me experience them. Afterward I will be able to experience both ease and joy. The first efforts to learn and practice the virtues and establish the habit of virtuous living are often very bitter and most difficult for the senses. The activity that follows after these initial efforts to acquire the habit of virtuous living is very easy, ineffably sweet, and enjoyable.

      Briefly we can say that angels are invisibly present, holding crowns in their hands. Christ himself is the one Who will crown you every time you are victorious in the battle against the evil passions of the senses and you do not succumb to them. St. Basil said: “Suffering brings glory, and tribulation brings crowns.” But you have been beaten once or twice (I hope not!). Be not completely overcome. Stand firm and courageous, calling upon God for help. If you do so, the grace of God will come directly to your help and will not leave you to be completely overcome by the enemy. Do you want to be sure of this? Follow me and let us travel to Sodom. Have you come? Behold the five kings of Sodom mentioned in Holy Scripture (Gen 14), who were then under the hegemony of the Assyrian king Chedorlaomer and who were paying tribute to him and to the other kings with him for ten years. In the thirteenth year they rebelled and did not want to pay the tribute to the Assyrian king, who then declared war on them. It appeared soon afterward that the five kings were subdued and captured by the Assyri­ans. What happened next? When Abram heard about this, he ran to their aid; he fought, he won, and he liberated them for the sake of his nephew Lot. 

What Is the Symbolic Meaning of the War at Sodom for the Senses? 

The war at Sodom can be seen as an allegory on the five senses. The five kings are the five senses who up to the twelfth year of childhood enjoy the bodily pleasures and, in a sense, pay tribute to the Assyrian devil and to his three associate kings, who are the three initial and universal passions of forgetfulness, ignorance, and laziness. As soon as the mind begins to have discretion between good and evil and to under­stand the harm one suffers, then the five senses are checked by the mind and they no longer want to pay tribute to the enemy. That is, they do not want to give free reign to the passionate pleasure. This is why the enemy renews his attack, seeking to incite the senses to their usual pleasures, and overcomes them. Jesus, a descendent of Abraham, when called upon to help, hears and responds. He strengthens the mind through His Grace and liberates the senses from being completely overrun by the enemy. Here is how St. Neilos explained this story:

      From this story we learn about ourselves and the war that is going on with our senses and sensible things. Each one of us from our birth to our twelfth year of age, not yet having the ability of rational discretion, allow the senses to be impressed indiscriminately by everything sensible. . . . During this time there is no intellectual power, because of the infancy, that would seek to guard any of the senses. When our intel­lect is made stronger and begins to understand how we are harmed, we seek to rebel and avoid such slavery. If one finds himself becoming stronger intellectually and spiritually, he will be confirmed in this realization and will remain free in all things, having escaped all bitter tyrants. But if one finds himself wanting in judgment, he will again betray his senses to captivity, being overcome by the power of the material things.[xv]  

It Is a Great Victory to Overcome Ourselves 

Do not think for a moment that this victory is small and insignificant. In fact it is a greater victory to overcome one of your passions and a pleasure of your senses than to overcome one hundred of your ene­mies. It is a more glorious trophy of victory to shed willingly a few drops of perspiration and one drop of blood, for the love of God, in order to overcome one of your evil wills and to spite the devil, than to shed rivers of blood to subdue entire armies. Again it is a greater triumph to subdue your senses and your entire body to your hege­monious mind than to subdue large kingdoms. Once, when King Alex­ander was praised for having conquered the whole ecumene, he re­sponded with the prudent remark: “All of my victories will prove to be vain, if I do not succeed to conquer myself.” Many who have subdued their enemies, cities, and countries have later been subdued miserably by their own improper passions and have shamefully become slaves of their own passions. A certain Father was very correct when he said that “the first victory is the victory of self.” St. Isidore Pelousiotes also said: The true victor is not he who subdues the foreign barbarians, but he who wages spiritual warfare against the evil passions. Many who have conquered barbarians have in turn been shamefully subdued by their own passions.”[xvi]  

It Is Most Important to Be Victorious in Spiritual Warfare  

If you stand courageously to fight the unseen warfare against your senses and the enemy and in fighting you win, know that the angels will assist you and will crown you victor. St. Isidore has informed you of this. “Angels will assist you after the battle and will crown you with victory.”[xvii] If you should lose heart and fall in this battle and appear to be defeated, God forbid, you will not only be the object of malignant joy to the enemy, not only will you cause sadness and shame to Christ for being deprived of heavenly crowns, but even according to human standards, you will become an insignificant person. . . . The ancient Greeks had a law that required a soldier to be without name and fame as long as his weapons did not bear the sign of a victor and his spear the bloodstain of his enemies. But he who would lose his weapons was the most dejected of men. Therefore the Spartans exiled their own poet Archilohos because he simply wrote in his poems a verse which said: “It is better to be deprived of weapon than life.”

St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain - A Handbook of Spiritual Council – Chapter 8; Guarding All the Senses in General pp. 136-145 (“The Classics of Western Spirituality” series.) 


[i] Homily 5, On Our Father.

[ii] St. Basil, Homily on Virginity.

[iii] Homily 26.

[iv] On Virginity, ch. 21.

[v] Homily on the Renunciation of Life.

[vi] Homily 44.

[vii] Quoted in the Gerontikon.

[viii] ρηττ᾿ ἄρρητἀι τε, φατἀτ᾿ ἄφατἀ τε”

[ix] On Prayer, ch. 117.

[x] Quoted in Kallistos Xanthopoulos, ch. 65.

[xi] Homily 11, ch. 5.

[xii] Ascetic Homilies quoted in the Philokalia.

[xiii] Letter 107 to Eutonios the Deacon.

[xiv] Quoted in the Gerontikon.

[xv] Philokalia.

[xvi] Letter 1177 to Germanos.

[xvii] Letter 75 to John the Hermit.


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