Orthodox Christian Spirituality--Life in Christ (Part II)

Venerable Theodosius the Great, the Cenobiarch

Venerable Theodosius the Great, the Cenobiarch

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


By Father Dumitru Staniloae [Romanian Orthodox Theologian]

Orthodox Christian Asceticism

Asceticism is the "slaying of death" in us, to liberate our nature from its bondage, as Saint Maximus the Confessor points out. There are really two deaths: The first is produced by sin and is the death of our nature. The second is a death like Christ's, which is the death of sin and the death produced by it. However, the death of our nature, through the decomposition produced by sin, doesn't come only at the final moment; rather it nibbles away for a long time like a worm. So too the death of death, or of sin, isn't something momentary but must be prepared for through long ascetical mortification. Asceticism is the gradual elimination of the poison that leads to decomposition, to corruption. It eliminates the sickness that kills our nature and therefore is its fortification. Asceticism is a life-giving mortification (zoopoios necrosis), as Saint Simeon the New Theologian calls it. It is the gradual slaying of sin and all tendencies toward it.

According to the current use of the word, asceticism has a negative connotation. It means a negative holding back, a negative restraint, or a negative effort. This is because the sinful tendencies of our nature, the habitual things that lead to its death, have come to be considered as the positive side of life. Ascetical striving, though negative in appearance, confronts the negative element in human nature with the intent to eliminate it by permanent opposition.

In reality, asceticism has a positive purpose. It seeks fortification of our nature and its liberation from the worms of sin that gnaw at it and hasten its ruin. In place of the passions, asceticism plants the virtues, which presuppose truly strengthened nature. The ultimate goal of asceticism is to free our nature not only from the movements of sinful appetites but also from the ideas that appear in the mind after the cleansing from the passions. This is only to gain its independence from created things, which have enslaved our nature by the passions and to make it long more for God.

It is true that asceticism, on the last step of its efforts, must also prepare a pure mind for God, emptied of all impressions of things created, of all earthly preoccupations. But this 'emptiness' is not something totally negative. As much as the passivity of the human factor under the work of Divine Glory is talked about, nowhere is it said that this passivity is the equivalent of inertia, with a total minus. The "emptiness" of the mind offered to God, represents in a positive way a thirst exclusively for Him. Much experience has convinced it of the corruption of all passionate preoccupations and of the relativity of all intellectual preoccupations oriented toward created things. As a result, it has rejected them in order to receive God in their place.

Human nature shows its weakness, according to the Holy Fathers, by its lack of firmness, by its instability. This instability is manifested by the ease in which it is attracted by pleasure and defeat by pain. It doesn't have the force to stand up to them, but quivers in a cowardly way, like a reed, pounded by the wind. Its will and proper judgment, two of the essential elements of our nature, lose their power completely. Our nature becomes like a ball in the hands of the passions, thrown here and there by every circumstance and impression. It no longer stands firm in its freedom; it has reached a spiritual weakness that bears all the signs of corruption. In no way does it show an incorruptibility that would assure it of eternity...

"...Ascetic efforts are the means by which human nature--which each of us bears--participates more and more in the force of His human nature, because our efforts also contain the force of the human nature of Christ. The potential tie with Christ is made effective by faith in Him, and His force becomes our force.

Therefore our asceticism is a gradual death with Christ, as a development of power, a death of the old man, an extension of baptism by will. It is not only an imitation of Christ as in the West (Western Christianity: Roman Catholicism and Protestantism), but a heroic mortification with Christ and in Christ. We are united with Christ already in the prolonged process of our mortification even before the culminating state of mystical union with Him. We cannot be resurrection with Christ if we do not first die with Him.

The resurrection with Christ follows as a continuation of mortification, or of death, not as a change in direction. It's true that, in union with Christ in death, His presence isn't visible; but is because while the old man dies gradually within us, Christ also dies with us. Yet His death is a humbling too, an eclipse of glory. Christ isn't seen in the state of mortification, but He is present and it is known that He is. Now the establishment of our certainty regarding His presence in us, by faith and not by sight, make clear once again the heroic character of His ascetic phase.

The Holy Fathers, Saint Mark the Ascetic and Saint Maximus the Confessor, point out this presence of Christ, as unseen force, when they say that Christ is the essence, the being of the virtues. If virtue means manliness, strength, and the essence of this strength is Christ, it's evident that the power of Christ is working in our asceticism. (Source: Orthodox Spirituality)

(To be continued)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George