Saturday, April 1, 2017

Principles of Orthodox Ascetism.

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov).

The tonsuring of Saint Silouan as a monk. Frescoe in
Saint John the Baptist Monastery in Essex.
   In every age the spirit of man finds itself concerned with the problem of asceticism. Asceticism is of pressing importance not only to those who set out to be ascetics in the nar­row and, may I say, 'specialist' sense - monks and hermits, for instance - but in general to every Christian. Asceticism, understood as spiritual labour, constitutes an inseparable part of the histories of all known religions and civilizations, even of civilizations with no religious basis. Every religion, all the old and new para-religious forms, the lives of the mystics - all have their ascetic culture, which varies in accordance with the underlying dogmatic consciousness.
   For us Christ is absolute truth. He is God-the-Creator and God-the-Saviour. His commandments are the Uncreated Light of divinity. The essence of Orthodox asceticism lies in striving to make these commandments the one law of our whole temporal and eternal being. The ascetic continually endeavours to attain perfection. But the perfection which we have in mind is not contained in the created nature of man, and so cannot be achieved by developing the potentialities of this nature, as such, with its limitations. Our perfection is in the Divine Being, and is the gift of the Holy Spirit. It follows from this that the ascetic concentrates on an effort to merge his life and will with the life and will of God Himself. This he arrives at mainly in prayer, and so prayer is the summit of every ascetic action. Orthodox asceticism reaches its highest expression in prayer, and the Orthodox ascetic de­votes his chief energies to prayers. Since it is pre-eminently a creative act, prayer is capable of infinite variety, both in its forms and its virtues. The most perfect form of prayer is known as pure prayer, by means of which we enter into the Divine Being through the power of the Holy Spirit - the ul­timate purpose of true asceticism. For this purpose the ascetic puts everything else behind him, as it were, and the monastic renunciation of the world lies in this abandoning.
   If we now transfer our attention to the consideration of monasticism, this should not mean any restricting of our theme. Monasticism is not a confession which differs from that of other Christians: it is merely a somewhat different form of life which proceeds, however, from those same com­mandments of Christ, the practice of which inevitably entails ascetic effort. Where there is a Christian there must be an ascetic, and so when we speak of monastic asceticism we are speaking of something which is near and familiar to every Orthodox believer.
   The denial of the world and the vows required of the monk are not always easily understood. "Is it possible to base a full, substantial life on negation - on renunciatory principles?" sums up a widespread reaction. The answer is, "Of course not'". The very commandments of Christ - 'Love' - are positive in character, and life in God generally can only be a positive act. Where there is love of God there is no need for effort in the form of self-denial in order to conquer this or that passion. The man filled with the love of Christ, the man to whom this love has become second nature, does not have to renounce attachment to the things of this world, or thraldom to the passions, for he is already free of them. In his condition [of love] every spiritual action performed ac­cording to the precepts of Christ is the spontaneous, grateful expression of love, not the result of any forcing of himself. But, because of the fall of man, completely positive action in accordance with the Gospel commandments - that is, an uninterrupted continuing and a growing in the love of God - is inevitably bound up in this life with asceticism in its negative aspect of resistance to the 'law of sin' to which we are subject. "The whole world lieth in wickedness" (1 John 5: 19), says St. John. The wickedness is that we have become the slaves of sin. The liberation of man, free by his original nature, his regeneration into eternal divine life, the transfiguration and deification of his whole being proceed from the union of the divine and the human. On the human plane negative action predominates, whereas on the divine plane it is always the positive which prevails.
   The idea that the world must be renounced has led the majority of people to regard the monastic state as something sombre and uncomfortable. But those who have chosen monasticism see it differently. St. Theodore the Studite, for instance, in his enthusiasm for the life of a monk, called it 'the third grace'. The first grace was the law of Moses; the second, 'the grace for grace' which we have all received of the fullness of Christ; and now the third, the monastic life, understood as celestial life, as the descent to earth of the an­gelic world, as the attainment and realization in history of what by its very essence lies beyond the confines of history.
   Bishop Ignati Brianchaninov, prominent in the rich flowering of the Russian Church in the nineteenth century, has this to say of monasticism: "Christian perfection consists of a pure heart to which God appears and in which He manifests His presence through diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit. He who has attained this perfection becomes the bearer of light, and fulfils the commandment to love his neighbour not by any material service but by the service of the Spirit, guiding those who seek salvation, setting them up again when they fall, and healing their wounded souls. The choir of monks has given to the Church of Christ pastors who, accompanying their teaching with miracles, have tended and fortified her not with words of human wisdom but with words taught of the Spirit. This is why we see the Church, after the period of the martyrs, take refuge in the desert. There had her perfection fled, there in the desert lived the source of her light, there we find the true strength of the Church militant. Who were those men "John Chrysostom", "Basil the Great", "Epiphanios", the "Metropolitans Alexei and Philip" - who were all the holy pastors?. These bearers of light are to be found not only in the ranks of the bishops but among simple monks, from "Antony the Great" and "John of Damascus" to "Sergi of Radonezh" and "Georgi the Anchorite". They established the faith, and denounced and vanquished heresy. Without monks would not Christianity have disappeared from the world?. This is why PERFECTION is so essential to the Christian Church; without it even salvation and faith itself may easily be lost, and will certainly be lost: for "senses" are required, "exer­cised by reason of use", to discern good from evil. In the early Church it was the ascetics and martyrs who achieved this perfection; afterwards, it was the monks.
   'What a prideful statement of monasticism!' you will say. 'What a proud heart it reveals!' - 'Dirt passes unnoticed in a dark room,' we reply, 'whereas in a room lit by the bright rays of the sun the finest particle of dust shows up.' The Holy Spirit teaches humility; having taken up His abode in the heart, He groans with groanings which cannot be uttered, and manifests to man the nothingness of his righteousness - as Isaiah wrote: 'All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags' . The veritable pride of the devil is to disregard the divine gift as if it did not exist.
   If we would preserve our ardour for the perfection commanded of us by Christ - 'Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect' - we must not lose sight of the Holy Fathers' conception of monasticism. Indeed, if we let our attention dwell solely on the outward day-to-day life of the Church, we may easily become dis­couraged and even shocked. But if we consider the Church in her essence, and in the divine life which she dispenses to us, no external condition, however difficult and disagreeable it may happen to be, can turn us from the love of Christ. In the words of the prophet David: "Great peace have they which love thy law, and nothing shall offend them." (Psalm 119: 165).

Edmonds R. (2014), Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov): Truth and Life, Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, Essex, Edition “Mygdonia”, Thessaloniki, Greece.