Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Essays about Orthodoxy


The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament

Fr. Georges Florovsky

Emeritus Professor of Eastern Church History Harvard University


Source: http://www.holytrinitymission.org/books/english/fathers_florovsky_4.htm

With His teaching, as well as His example, our Lord Jesus Christ presented the Ascetic Ideal as yet another kind of polity of the faithful.

Reflections on the Critique of the Theology of the Reformation

If the monastic ideal is union with God through prayer, through humility, through obedience, through constant recognition of one's sins, voluntary or involuntary, through a renunciation of the values of this world, through poverty, through chastity, through love for mankind and love for God, then is such an ideal Christian For some the very raising of such a question may appear strange and foreign. But the history of Christianity, especially the new theological attitude that obtained as a result of the Reformation, forces such a question and demands a serious answer. If the monastic ideal is to attain a creative spiritual freedom, if the monastic ideal realizes that freedom is attainable only in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and if the monastic ideal asserts that to become a slave to God is ontologically and existentially the path to becoming free, the path in which humanity fully becomes human precisely because the created existence of humanity is contingent upon God, is by itself bordered on both sides by non-existence, then is such an ideal Christian Is such an ideal Biblical — New Testamental Or is this monastic ideal, as its opponents have claimed, a distortion of authentic Christianity, a slavery to mechanical "monkish" "works righteousness"


The Significance of The Desert

When our Lord was about to begin his ministry, he went into the desert — εις την έρημον. Our Lord had options but he selected — or rather, "was lead by the Spirit," into the desert. It is obviously not a meaningless action, not a selection of type of place without significance. And there — in the desert — our Lord engages in spiritual combat, for he "fasted forty days and forty nights” — νηστεύσας ημέρας τεσσαράκοντα και νύκτας· τεσσαρακοστά ύστερον επείνασεν. The Gospel of St. Mark adds that our Lord “was with tins wild beasts” — και ην μετά των θηρίων. Our Lord, the God-Man, was truly God and truly man. Exclusive of our Lord's redemptive work, unique to our Lord alone, he calls us to follow him — και ακολοθείτω μοι. “Following” our Lord is not exclusionary; it is not selecting certain psychologically pleasing aspects of our Lord's life and teachings to follow. Rather it is all-embracing. We are to follow our Lord in every way possible. "To go into the desert" is "to follow" our Lord. It is interesting that our Lord returns to the desert after the death of St. John the Baptist. There is an obvious reason for this. "And hearing [of John the Baptist's death] Jesus departed from there in a ship to a desert place privately” — ανεχώρησεν εκείθεν εν πλοίω εις έρημον τόπον και ιδίαν. When St. Antony goes to the desert, he is "following" the example of our Lord — indeed, he is "following" our Lord. This in no way diminishes the unique, salvific work of our Lord, this in no way makes of our Lord God, the God-Man, a mere example. But in addition to his redemptive work, which could be accomplished only by our Lord, our Lord taught and set examples. And by "following" our Lord into the desert, St. Antony was entering a terrain already targeted and stamped by our Lord as a specific place for spiritual warfare. There is both specificity and "type" in the "desert. " In those geographical regions where there are no deserts, there are places which are similar to or approach that type of place symbolized by the "desert," It is that type of place which allows the human heart solace, isolation. It is the type of place which puts the human heart in a state of aloneness, a state in which to meditate, to pray, to fast, to reflect upon one's inner existence and one's relationship to ultimate reality — God. And more. It is a place where spiritual reality is intensified, a place where spiritual life can intensify and simultaneously where the opposing forces to spiritual life can become more dominant. It is the terrain of a battlefield but a spiritual one. And it is our Lord, not St. Antony, who has set the precedent. Our Lord says that "as for what is sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceit of riches choke(s) the word, and it becomes unfruitful” — ο δε εις τας ακάνθας σπαρείς, ούτος εστίν ο τον λόγον ακούων, και η μέριμνα τον αιώνος· και η απάτη τον πλούτου συμπνίγει τον λόγον, και άκαρπος γίνεται. The desert, or a place similar, precisely cuts off the cares or anxieties of the world and the deception, the deceit of earthly riches. It cuts one off precisely from "this-worldliness" and precisely as such it contains within itself a powerful spiritual reason for existing within the spiritual paths of the Church. Not as the only path, not as the path for everyone, but as one, fully authentic path of Christian life.


The Gospel of St. Matthew

In the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:16) it is our Lord who uses the terminology of "good works. " " Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and may glorify your Father who is in heaven” — ούτως λαμψάτω το φως υμών έμπροσθεν των ανθρώπων, όπως ίδωσιν υμών τα καλά έργα και δοξάσωσιν τον πατέρα υμών τον εν τοις ουρανοίς. Contextually these “good works” are defined in the preceding text of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” — μακάριοι oι πραείς, δη αυτοί κληρονομήσουσιν την γην. “Blessed are they who are hungering and are thirsting for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” — μακάριοι οι πεινώντες και διψώντες την δικαιοσύνην, ότι αυτοί χορτασθήσονται. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” — μακάριοι οι καθαροί τη καρδία, δη αυτοί τον θεόν όψονται. Is it not an integral part of the monastic goal to become meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and to become pure in heart This, of course, must be the goal of all Christians but monasticism, which makes it an integral part of its ascetical life, can in no way be excluded. Are not the Beatitudes more than just rhetorical expressions Are not the Beatitudes a part of the commandments of our Lord In the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:19) our Lord expresses a deeply meaningful thought — rather a warning. "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” — ος εάν oυν λύση μίαν των εντολών τούτων των ελαχίστων και διδάξη ούτως τους ανθρώπους, ελάχιστος κληθήσεται εν τη βασιλεία των ουρανών. And it is in this context that our Lord continues to deepen the meaning of the old law with a new, spiritual significance, a penetrating interiorization of the "law. " He does not nullify or abrogate the law but rather extends it to its most logical and ontological limit, for he drives the spiritual meaning of the law into the very depth of the inner existence of mankind.

"You heard that it was said to those of old… but I say to you” — Ηκούσατε ότι ερρέθη τοις αρχαίοις εγώ δε λέγω υμίν. Now, with the deepening of the spiritual dimension of the law, the old remains, it is the base, but its spiritual reality is pointed to its source. “You shall not kill” becomes inextricably connected to “anger.” “But I say to you that everyone being angry with his brother shall be liable to the judgment” — εγώ δε λέγω υμίν ότι πας ο οργιζόμενος τω αδελφώ αυτού ένοχος εσται τη κρίσει No longer is the external act the only focal point. Rather the source, the intent, the motive is now to be considered as the soil from which the external act springs forth. Mankind must now guard, protect, control, and purify the inner emotion or attitude of "anger" and, in so doing, consider it in the same light as the external act of killing or murder. Our Lord has reached into the innermost depth of the human heart and has targeted the source of the external act. "You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who is seeing a woman lustfully, has already committed adultery with her in his heart” — ου μοιχεύσεις. εγώ δε λέγω υμίν ότι πας ο βλέπων γυναίκα προς το επιθυμήσαι αυτήν ήδη εμοίχευσεν αυτήν εν τη καρδία αυτού. From a spiritual perspective the person who does not act externally but lusts within is equally liable to the reality of "adultery." "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and you shall hate your enemy'. But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those persecuting you so that you may become sons of your Father in heaven” — ηκούσατε ότι ερρέθη, αγαπήσεις τον πλησίον σου και μισήσεις τον εχθρόν σου. Εγώ δε λέγω υμίν, αγαπάτε τους εχθρούς υμών και προσεύχεσθε υπέρ των διωκόντων υμάς.

Article published in English on: 15-4-2008.

Last update: 15-4-2008.