Philokalic Friday: The Cross in St Mark the Ascetic

I am on the cusp of finishing the first volume of The Philokalia. One of the big concerns that will strike many a Protestant who comes across books such as The Philokalia or The Art of Prayer or the Desert Fathers and Mothers or Dionyius the Areopagite is an apparent lack of crucicentrism. While few of us are not necessarily that excited by Gothic altarpieces, we have a devotion to Jesus that is focussed upon his atoning death and sacrificed that oned us to God.

The first way to assuage any such concerns is to remind the person that anthologies such as The Philokalia or The Art of Prayer do not include everything written by the authors. Maximus the Confessor wrote a great many things not in The Philokalia. The second is to point out that there is a difference of genre here from what is being sought; this is not dogmatic theology, nor even devotion as understood in the later Middle Ages. It is about certain aspects of Christian praxis, namely how to achieve stillness (hesychia) and meet with the risen, ascended Christ here and now.

The third is to check the index of The Philokalia, vol. 1, and see where/how the cross figures in the book.

Keeping in mind the genre of the text, consider St Mark the Ascetic, ‘On the Spiritual Law’:

30. The law of freedom teaches the whole truth. Many read about it in a theoretical way, but few really understand it, and these only in the degree to which they practise the commandments.

31. Do not seek the perfection of this law in human virtues, for it is not found perfect in them. Its perfection is hidden in the Cross of Christ.

St Mark here assumes that his readers know about salvation through the Cross of Christ and what the Cross of Christ means. The law of freedom is found perfect in the cross. We should probably read him in light of his other statements, as in ‘On Those Who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works’ (an anti-Pelagian tract):

2. Wishing to show that to fulfil every commandment is a duty, whereas sonship is a gift given to men through His own Blood, the Lord said: ‘When you have done all that is commanded, say: “We are useless servants: we have only done what was our duty”‘ (Luke 17:10). Thus the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants.

4. ‘Christ died on account of our sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3); and to those who serve Him well He gives freedom. …

20. If ‘Christ died on our account in accordance with the Scriptures’ (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3), and we do not ‘live for ourselves’, but ‘for Him who died and rose’ on our account (2 Cor. 5:15), it is clear that we are debtors to Christ to serve Him till our death. How then can we regard sonship as something which is our due?

21. Christ is Master by virtue of his own essence and Master by virtue of His incarnate life. For He crates man from nothing, and through His own Blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace.

23. We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us.

26. While man can scarcely keep what belongs to him by nature, Christ gives the grace of sonship through the Cross.

In his ‘Letter to Nicolas the Solitary’, St Mark the Ascetic encourages Nicolas in various ways, largely through recollection of God’s grace to him, and writes:

What repayment for all these blessings can you possibly make to Him who has called your soul to eternal life? It is only right, then, that you should live no longer for yourself, but for Christ, who died for your sake and rose again. (p. 153 English)

He encourages Nicolas to keep in mind ‘the great humiliation which the Lord took upon Himself in His ineffable love for us’ (p. 156 English). St Mark goes on to give a beautiful synopsis of the Gospel story from Incarnation to ascension. Consider Christ’s humiliation — and then endure your own suffering.

The point of these texts is to encourage Christians in the path to righteousness, to give them practical advice about prayer and the spiritual life. It is to remind them that none of their good works are anything worth but, rather, the manifold and great mercies of God make them so.

The Cross of Christ stands in ascetic theology as very briefly excerpted above in three ways, then.

  1. Christ has died for us and given us grace. This grace enables us to live holy lives.
  2. Christ has died for us; we should live holy lives out of gratitude.
  3. Christ has suffered and died; we should endure our sufferings with patience.

There is not laying out in full of a theory of the atonement here, but that is not what St Mark is aiming at. He almost assumes such knowledge on the part of the reader from the start.

So, this Good Friday, how will the Cross of Christ impact how you live?

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Why I’m not Orthodox

Seraphim of Sarov

I try to avoid polemic on this blog. I’d rather discuss those things from the Great Tradition and various other traditions of Christianity that most of us can benefit from, or those things that really just tickle my fancy. However, today I have a burning desire to write something less than irenic.

I write this post as a result of the fact that I dare to pray for other people when praying the Jesus Prayer. This, according to one commenter, is the height of arrogance, and is based on my proud assumption that I am already saved. And, apparently, I have made this assumption because I’ve read a lot of books and think I can pray:

Or you already apriori decided that once u have read and learn anything and “think” u can pray u r saved?)

I don’t know why the random parentheses are scattered across said commenter’s comments.

This brings me to the heart of why I am not Orthodox: salvation.

Reconcile me to the Virgin, the saints, the necessity of kissing icons, the Orthodox view of church history, Palamite hesychasm, the Eucharist, and so forth. I’m willing to be convinced. But I will be much harder to convince because of how this tradition approaches salvation.

At its best (and I try to look at all non-heretical Christian groups at their best), the Orthodox tradition wilfully refuses to parse salvation, saying that simply praying the sinner’s prayer isn’t enough to be ‘saved’, that salvation is found in the ongoing life of faith that follows.

At its best, Protestantism says, ‘Yes. That moment of conversion by faith is when we are initially justified, and then we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, being sanctified by the work of the Spirit in our hearts through the ongoing life of faith that follows.’

The whole bundle is ‘salvation’ for the Orthodox, while we parse the different bits.

Each catches a bit of the truth.

But this leads to difficulties for many of the eastern tradition, going back at least to Mark the Monk, a fifth-century Greek monk who lived in the Egyptian desert (maybe; it’s a common name, so all the sayings attributed to Mark the Monk may not all be by the same monk named Mark). If you read the selections from said Mark in The Philokalia, one of the things that will become apparent to a Protestant reader is that Mark has no assurance of salvation.

Mark the Monk, for all the various pieces of wisdom on prayer and the spiritual life he has, lives in the fear of Hell.

This may not be the best of Mark the Monk, and it may not be the best of Eastern Orthodoxy, but it is not uncommon.

Indeed, is this why many Orthodox pray the Jesus Prayer? For me, it is a way of drawing nearer to the Saviour who I know has saved me. If it is ‘salvation’, it is the ongoing purification from the presence of sin or the tendency toward sin in my life, not escape from Hell.

This is why it’s not so bad that we Protestants tend to parse salvation, even if we may go too far sometimes.

This concern of self-salvation is prominent in my Orthodox commenter’s concerns, evident when she quotes Seraphim of Sarov (but possibly attributing it to the Desert Fathers?) in the form:

Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved.

This seems to be a popular version of the quotation, although I have hitherto only encountered it as:

Keep your heart at peace, and a multitude around you will be saved.

And I immediately hear Fr John Romanides yelling in my ear, ‘Keeping your heart at peace, acquiring peace in your nous IS salvation, Protestant!’ And I respond, ‘It is a result of salvation, given by grace and usually after years of the walk of faith.’

If I save myself, if I keep my heart at peace, that is a terrible burden. I cannot lift that.

Is this not the entire point of the Gospel of Grace? God became man so that man might become like God? We are, each of us, beset by sin on all sides. We cannot, of our own accord, save ourselves. We, God’s beloved creation, are tending towards destructin. So he becomes one of us, and by the power of that Incarnation, and then the death of One of the Most Holy Trinity on our behalf, and then when He destroys death with the lightning flash of his Godhead and rises again, He gives us the grand gift of salvation from the penalty of sin.

And as we accept this gift of grace, he empowers us to live holier lives, day by day, lives of grace. If we accept his daily grace and walk with Him regularly and engage in the disciplines, we become holier and holier. This is the life of salvation, but all of it is grace.

Grace. The great scandal at the heart of the most ancient strand of the Christian tradition. The great incomprehensibility lying in wait for us in the Scriptures (read Romans, Ephesians, Colossians). A power so mighty that even those who claim the strongest ties to the ancient church live much of their lives as though salvation depended on themselves, not on it.

Maybe this is arrogance on my part. Maybe it is arrogant to say, ‘I have read the Scriptures and many of the Fathers and much of the Tradition. The earliest strand and truest strand and the strand most consonant with the Scriptures is grace.’ If it is, God have mercy on my soul.

And I know — to forestall certain comments — that Vera is not the Orthodox position, and that there is a diversity within Eastern Orthodoxy, and that there are shades of meaning in ‘salvation’ in Orthodox discourse, and that what I describe is not indicative of the experience of a great many Orthodox, and so forth. I have no doubt. But I have witnessed it with my own eyes — all the more, then, do I grieve for this state of affairs.