The Ascetic Life

New Martyr Philosophus of St Petersburg

Beloved brothers and sisters,


O Lord our God, the Father of the True Light, Who has adorned the day with the heavenly light and has gladdened the night with the sparks of fire, Who has prepared the repose of the age to come for those who love You, the spiritual and unceasing Light; illumine our hearts with the knowledge of Your Truth and keep our life unhindered, granting us that we may walk becomingly as in the day, and glorify in deed and word Your All-Holy Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.


by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos [source: Entering the Orthodox Church]

We have already studied the theological, anthropological and ecclesiological aspects of the parable of the prodigal son. The parable also has ascetic import.

In analyzing the parable of the prodigal son, Saint Gregory Palamas says that man's nous is prodigal, because it departs from God. Or to put it in a better way, the property, which man received from his father and squandered wastefully, is the nous. "Above all our property and possessions is our own innate nous." Man's soul has nous, reason and spirit, according to the original model of God the Trinity. The nous in its natural condition is illumined and directs reason. Thus, a prodigal person is someone whose nous is squandered on other things. It does not have remembrance of God.

The nous is the faculty of the soul, which could be called "finest attention." When one follows the ways of salvation, then one's nous stays both within itself and within the first Nous, God. However, when we open the door to the passions, the nous is dissipated on carnal and earthly things, on sensual pleasures and impassioned thoughts. Prudence, which distinguishes good from evil, is the wealth of the mind. The more the nous keeps God's Commandments and remains in God, the more prudence functions normally. It distinguishes good from evil and prefers the former to the latter. However, when the nous is unrestrained, then prudence is dissipated in fornication and foolishness.

The nous, then, is the central faculty of the soul, which conducts it, and ultimately directs the entire man. It keeps desire pointed towards God. However, when the nous becomes torpid, the soul's faculty, which is directed towards love, falls away from God and is dissipated to other things. Hence, the passions of self-indulgence, love of money and ambition develop. In its natural state, the nous directs anger against the devil. However, when the nous is dissipated and becomes torpid, anger is aimed at other people and it fights against them. Consequently, man becomes a prodigal and his nous becomes demonic and bestial.

This means that in relation to sin man's nous is the first to suffer. The tempting suggestion enters man through impassioned thoughts, sensible things and fantasies. Its sole aim is to take over his nous, his finest attention, which is the center of man's personality. For example, a certain impassioned thought comes, saying that for someone to become rich he must steal and wrong others. The beauty of wealth, and all that is related to it, enters the soul as images, with the aim of taking over the nous. If captured, it then becomes a desire; it is then committed and finally, the recurring act become a passion. Thus, man is completely enslaved to the devil, just as the prodigal was enslaved to the citizens of that town.

Consequently, man's freedom is, in reality, internal. One can be outwardly free, living in a free nation; but when inner freedom is absent, one experiences tragedy within one's life. Conversely, with existential freedom, one can endure the most oppressive tyrannies and actually feel free. During the time of the persecutions, the martyrs had inner freedom; whereas many contemporary Christians, who have external freedom, do not keep God's Will and are slaves.

The parable of the prodigal son says: "Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed the swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything". (St. Luke 15:15-16).

The citizens and political leaders of that city, which is far from home, are the demons. In the Orthodox Church, we say that the demons are evil spirits who hate man excessively and will do absolutely anything to separate him from God. In the beginning, the demons were Angels, who glorified God, but they fell because of their pride and became demons. They spawned evil of their own accord, and want to lead man to apostasy. The greatest passion is pride, because it is the first sin that caused the fall of both demons and man.

The swinish life is every passion, due to its great filth. The "swine" are those people who roll in the passions. A passion is the movement and function of the powers of the soul contrary to nature. The three basic passions are ambition, love of money and self-indulgence. The center of these three passions is love of self, which is irrational love for our body, i.e., when someone loves his body independently of the soul and wants to indulge it carnally. Other passions, which torment man, sprout and proceed from these passions. In the Orthodox Church, we say that passions are the energies of man's soul that are contrary to nature. In other words, love exists within man so that he can turn to God, but, instead is turned to created things, in an impassioned manner, we are then talking about a passion of the soul.

The prodigal man cannot satisfy his hunger with the pods that swine eat. That is to say, it is impossible for him to fully satisfy his desire. He is always left hungry. The more property someone gains, the more his deprivation is increased, and moreover, his desire to acquire more also increases. Then man wants, if it is at all possible, to acquire the whole world. However, since there is only one world, but many greedy people, the lover of money can never be satisfied.

In consequence, when the nous is captured by an impassioned thought or a fantasy, it entices the desiring faculty and the temper far away from God. Thus, the whole of man is captured and becomes sick, with horrific consequences both for himself and for society. This is the tragedy of sin. Naturally, as we mentioned above, this begins from the nous that is captured.

In this way, we gain a good understanding of what sin is precisely. We usually associate sin with certain external events and external acts. Without doubt, these are also sins, but we can say that these acts (stealing, lies, anger, etc.) are the result and fruit of the darkening and capture of the nous. Sin is the darkening of the nous, followed by the contranatural movement of the soul's faculties and man's separation from God, from his real home. In this condition, whatever a man does, he is still a sinner. Saint Gregory Palamas reaches the point of saying that when man does not have God's grace within him, then, whatever he does, is sinful. Also, Christ, mentions a relevant parable. He says that, the five foolish virgins practiced virginity and self-control. Yet, because they did not have oil in their lamps, i.e. they did not have God's grace within themselves (something that is evident from the existence of prayer of the nous), they did not enter into the Kingdom of God.

This is why ascetic practice consists of how to keep our nous pure, how it will be illumined from the darkness, and will have constant memory of God. Orthodox asceticism is not spent on certain external works, but it is for the purification of the heart and the illumination of nous. When the nous has the right orientation, then the entire organism of man functions correctly.

(to be continued)

With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George