October 22, 2015

The Spiritual Law According to St. Mark the Ascetic

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Human societies have need of laws if they are to function correctly, and such societies are described as well-ordered. The existence Of laws is essential because fallen man with his passions creates huge social problems, since the principle of individual rights applies. This means that each person, in his attempt to exercise his rights to the full, comes into direct confrontation with other people, who are also in the grip of passions and want to satisfy their own wishes and their individual rights. So there must be laws to set matters in order and to determine the bounds of citizens’ rights.

What happens in human societies also occurs in the spiritual context for exactly the same reason. If everyone had within them the Holy Spirit working to bring about illumination and glorification, there would be no need for a ‘religious’ law. However, that will only happen in human life at the end of time for those who have full communion with the Triune God.

In the pages that follow we will look in greater detail at the meaning of law and its different levels. We will concern ourselves mainly, however, with the force and effect of the spiritual law according to the teaching of St Mark the Ascetic.

1. Different Levels of the Law

The Greek word for law (nomos) derives from the verb meaning ‘distribute’ (nemo), and signifies anything which has been given and allotted proportionately, or ‘that which is in habitual practice, use or possession’, and thus by extension, ‘usage, custom’.

From the spiritual point of view it should be noted that when man was first created he had spoken dialogue with God and a personal relationship with Him. In Paradise before the Fall Adam had personal communion with God: God spoke and he heard. After Adam and Eve left Paradise, personal communion with God ceased, but there were holy men, the Prophets, to whom God spoke, and who went on to lead the people. In oilier words, God spoke through the Prophets.

Since, however, man was continuously falling into error and forgetfulness of God, to the point that he confused the Creator with created things, God gave the written law through Moses.

In the beginning man was able to commune with God through the spoken word. Later, after the Fall, there was the personal word of the law, which was given through the Prophets and righteous men of the Old Covenant. Then the written law was given so that there would be something unchanging which would constantly remind people of God’s rules. The Israelites had to read the law of Moses and the words of the Prophets all the time in order to distinguish truth from error and to make steady progress towards acquiring communion with God.

The Apostle Paul develops these themes in his Epistles. A few typical passages are cited below.

The Gentiles have the law of conscience, which is God’s voice speaking within them. In other words, God speaks through His image within every man, since every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:14-15).

At a certain appropriate moment in time, because confusion had arisen between man’s conscience and his passions, God gave the written law through Moses. As this law had been given by God it was holy. “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). Within man, however, there was also the law of sin, the passions, which were the outcome of Adam’s sin and led to death. That is why the Apostle Paul says: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. Ο wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:22-24).

This law of Moses was holy and just, but it could not rescue man from the rule of death and sin. The value of the law, however, lay in the fact that it guarded man and trained him, so that, when Christ came, he would be united with Him and be freed from the power of death. “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:23-25). That is why the Apostle Paul writes: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4).

The value of the law of Moses was clear in that it purified man from sins and enabled him to keep a correct perspective. Then later Christ, through His Incarnation, enlightened man, led him to glorification, and thus delivered him from the rule of death and sin. So the Apostle Paul writes: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law (on Id not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:2-3).

All those who are associated with Christ are guided by the Holy Spirit and acquire the gift of adoption as sons. This finds expression through the prayer of the heart, which is the Spirit’s action and voice within the heart of those who have been born again in Christ. The Spirit Himself bears witness to their spirit that they are children of God. “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:14-16).

It is clear from what we have said already that there is a natural law in operation, the law of conscience, which is connected with man’s very being, that is to say, with the fact that he was created in the image and likeness of God. Then there is the law of the Old Covenant, which cleanses man but does not deliver him from the power of the law of death. And thirdly there is the spiritual law given through Christ, which is written within man’s heart, rescues him from death and sin, enlightens him and deifies him, then leads him to the original personal word, that personal communion with God which is glorification.

This means that man should continually ascend from the natural law to the law of the Old Covenant, and thence to the law of the spirit, which is adoption as a child by grace. This ascent is man’s journey from purification to illumination and to glorification.

2. The Spiritual Law according to St Mark the Ascetic

Many opinions have been put forward about the figure of St Mark the Ascetic: that he was a disciple of St John Chrysostom (according to Nikiphoros Kallistos), that he was the Abbot of a monastery in Tarsus, or that he was an Egyptian monk. According to Professor Panayiotis Christou, however, Abba Mark “was the priest and superior of a brotherhood in Ankara shortly after 400, and later by reason of his desire to fight more intensely with the enemy and to devote himself to more genuine asceticism he moved into the desert.” This was not the Egyptian or Palestinian desert, but the desert of Galatia. He died at one hundred years old.

St Mark the Ascetic wrote eleven texts. St Photios the Great knew nine of his treatises. His works are: “On the Spiritual Law”, “On Those Who Think That They are Made Righteous by Works”, “On Repentance”, “On Baptism”, “Letter to Nicolas the Solitary with Admonitions to Benefit the Soul”, “Twenty-Eight Neptic Chapters”, “Reply to a Scholastic”, “Counsels of the Nous to Its Own Soul”, “On Fasting”, “Concerning Melchizedek”, “Against Nestorians”.

The writings of St Mark the Ascetic are referred to by many of the Fathers of the Church, among them the holy Martyr St Peter of Damascus, St Gregory Palamas Archbishop of Thessaloniki, St Gregory of Sinai, St Kallistos Patriarch of Constantinople, St Paul Evergetinos and others. The Church honours him as a saint, and celebrates his commemoration on the 5th March each year.

St Mark the Ascetic’s fundamental concept of the spiritual law is that there are certain unchanging principles in man’s spiritual life. Anything we do has repercussions.

This presupposes everything that we have already said about the law given by God. We must also take into account, however, what the so-called natural laws dictate. Scientists say that there are certain laws, such as the law of gravity or the law of attraction, which govern the universe, and man must accept their existence. We have to look at this, however, through the theology of our Church, according to which there are no arbitrary, independent, created natural laws in the universe put in place by God. This would mean that He Himself had abandoned the world to be ruled henceforth by these laws. There are, however, “spiritual logoi or principles”, which are the uncreated providence and energy of God that govern the universe. God personally directs the world through His uncreated providential energy, and not by means of created natural laws. Wherever there seem to be certain fixed rules in creation, this just goes to show how reliable the divine energy is. So a miracle does not mean that so-called natural laws have been suspended, but that God wills at that moment in time to act in a different way5.

It is clear that there are certain constant forces within creation, referred to as spiritual logoi or principles, which we cannot transgress without suffering repercussions in our lives. The same holds true for the spiritual life. Certain fundamental principles exist, and when we violate them we suffer consequences proportional to the deed. This also applies to man’s repentance.

There are two basic reasons why this is so, as the learned monk Father Theoklitos of Dionysiou explains.

The first is connected with the relationship between man’s freedom and God’s energy. Man is free to act according to his desires, but God trains him in many different ways for his salvation. On the one hand man’s freedom is never coerced; on the other, God expresses His love for him as his Teacher.

Father Theoklitos writes that the operation of the spiritual law has to do with “the constant link between two facts or two energies: man’s freedom and responsible action, and God’s providential response for the benefit of His creature. In other words, are you committing such-and-such an act or accepting such-and-such a thought? God’s energies will follow to teach you the appropriate lesson.” These energies of God are expressed through His love and His righteousness.

The other reason is to do with the fact that the spiritual law operates spiritually, so each of our deeds and actions gives rise of its own accord to corresponding outcomes and consequences in our lives.

Father Theoklitos writes, “Apart from the relationship between God and the believer, which is expressed in changeless fashion, the spiritual law also operates spiritually. Even without God’s intervention, different types of thoughts and actions are followed by the corresponding inner effects and changes, from which neither God nor the devil is completely absent. This is a mysterious reality, which escapes our notice, but which we believe”.

The same happens here as with physical illnesses. God directs each individual human life, sometimes according to His will, and at other times by allowing things to happen. At the same time, however, the way each person lives inevitably produces physical weakness and deterioration in a human body already made mortal by sin, and various bodily ailments arise as a result. The spiritual law operates in our life along the same lines as illness.

Father Paisios, the Hagiorite monk of blessed memory, representing the ascetic tradition of the Holy Mountain in our day, often referred to the concept of spiritual law and to its significance for the spiritual life. In one of his published conversations, in the form of questions and answers, he refers to these issues. I think it would be beneficial to cite his opinions here, because they will make it easier for us to understand the subject under consideration.

Speaking about what is meant by spiritual laws, he said:

“Just as there are natural laws in nature, so there are spiritual laws in the spiritual life. For instance, when someone throws a heavy object up in the air, the more vigorously he throws it and the heavier the object, the more forcefully it will fall down and break. This is a law of nature. In the spiritual life, the higher a person exalts himself through pride, the greater will be his spiritual fall, and he will be broken according to the height of his pride. Because the proud person goes up, reaches a certain point, then falls flat on his face – ‘Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased’ (Luke 18:14). This is the spiritual law”.

As a discerning hesychastic father, he made a wise distinction between natural and spiritual laws, saying:

“Whereas natural laws are merciless and no one can alter them, spiritual laws are merciful and a person can change them, because he is dealing with his Maker and Creator, the most merciful God. So if he immediately realises that pride is lifting him up and says, Ό God, I have nothing that is my own and yet I am proud; forgive me!’, at once the merciful hands of God seize him and bring him down gently, without his fall being perceptible. In this way he is not broken, because he has already shown brokenness of heart and repentance”.

Father Paisios used the sin of murder as an example. Christ said, “For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt. 26:52). The Elder said:

“If I have stabbed someone with a knife, in the normal way I must settle my debt by being knifed. But if I realise what I have done wrong, my conscience stabs me like a knife, and I ask God’s forgiveness, then the spiritual laws cease to operate and I receive God’s love like soothing balm”.

It is clear that, when someone repents, all the facts of the situation change and God’s blessings come through his repentance. The blessed Elder said: “Are you doing evil? God gives you a slap. Do you say, I have sinned’? He gives you blessings”.

However, there are people, who, although they have repented of the fault they committed and so the spiritual laws are no longer in force, ask God to punish them for what they did wrong. The blessed Elder would describe such people as “God’s noble children”, “His children with the keenest sense of honour".1 He said:

“They ask God persistently that they be punished in this life for their lapse, so that they can repay their debt. Therefore, as they insist, our good God fulfils this honourable request of theirs, but He keeps the payment earning interest in His heavenly savings bank, in Paradise. These are God’s noble children, His children with the keenest sense of honour”.

What the blessed Elder used to say about the time at which the spiritual laws operate is also important, since some of these laws work “in a flash” whereas others come into operation “later on”. He explained this phenomenon as follows:

“In those cases (when the laws operate immediately) the person should understand that God’s love is protecting him, because he is settling his debt, and will not have to pay everything back all at once. When, however, the spiritual laws do not function for a person, that is dangerous, because it indicates that he is an estranged child of God; he is not in His house. Some people act proudly all the time and never suffer anything. That means that their pride has surpassed human bounds, and reached its highest extreme: demonic pride or arrogance. Then the fall takes place on the other side of the summit, straight down into hell. This is a fall like Lucifer’s, and those on the opposite side of the mountaintop do not see it. In other words, the spiritual law does not catch up with them in this life, but what the Apostle says about them holds true: ‘Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived’ (2 Tim 3:13)”.

Of course he made clear that it is possible for the spiritual laws to be at work and for the person not to discern them, because “If someone does not observe himself he understands nothing, and nothing is of any help or benefit to him””. He also explained that the spiritual laws cease to function when someone humbles himself, or even “when someone is not responsible for his actions”14. Proving the value of accepting the spiritual laws, he concluded in characteristic fashion, “When the spiritual laws are at work in someone, some of the torments of hell are remitted”.

In the following pages we shall set out what St Mark the Ascetic writes in his text entitled “On the Spiritual Law”, which analyses the concept of Christian law, using as a starting point what the Apostle Paul says about the spiritual law. It must be stressed that the text which follows is densely packed with meanings because St Mark writes in short pithy statements. Precisely for that reason slow and careful reading is required. Every one of St Mark’s sentences is a priceless treasure.

a) What is the Spiritual Law?

When St Mark the Ascetic defines and interprets the theme of spiritual law he has in mind what the Apostle Paul says about spiritual law, as recorded in his Epistles (see Romans, Chapter 8 and elsewhere). Abba Mark writes: “Because you have often asked what the Apostle means when he says that ‘the law is spiritual’, and what kind of spiritual knowledge and action characterises those who wish to observe it, we shall speak of this as far as we can”.

His text contains an exposition on the subject of how the law is spiritual, what sort of knowledge those who want to observe it receive, what action those who desire to keep it in their lives should take, what they should look out for on their spiritual journey, what secret and subtle signs there are on this path, what the consequences are of their careless behaviour, and generally how the spiritual law operates in the lives of Christians who strive.

The basis of the spiritual law is that God Himself is the beginning, middle and end of everything good. Man can only do and believe what is good through his union with Christ, which comes about through the Holy Spirit. This is not a matter of some abstract impersonal good. Man must have steadfast faith in this struggle of his, and this faith is a “strong tower”. Christ becomes everything for the man who believes.

Everything good that we possess and acquire in life is providentially given to us by the Lord. Whoever has unshakable faith that this is so, will never lose this good gift (3). Clearly it goes without saying that, when someone does not believe in this fundamental principle, he will lose everything good. As God is the beginning of every good thing, every intention to strive for purity of heart should be inspired by Him, and man should ensure that whatever he does is done according to God.

In these first chapters St Mark the Ascetic lays the foundations of the spiritual life, the basis on which the law of the spirit, what we call the spiritual law, operates. Everything that a person achieves in his spiritual life is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and is bestowed on him through his union with the Triune God. Only with this sort of faith is it possible for someone to live the spiritual life.

Since man has been blinded by sin and cannot see this fundamental principle of the spiritual life, he needs to call continually upon God to open his spiritual eyes that he may see the benefit “of prayer and of spiritual reading when understood and applied”. It is evident here that he is referring to purifying the eyes of the nous, which comes about through prayer and reading the Scriptures. However, such reading must be linked with experience, meaning our existing experience, but also the application of what we are studying.

God’s law was originally given in man’s conscience, which is why the conscience is also “nature’s book”. However, only if this natural book is read in a practical way does a person experience divine assistance. It is not easy to read this natural law.

The spiritual law is mainly to be found in Holy Scripture. The Holy Scripture is “the law of freedom”, because it frees man from every dependence and teaches the whole truth (30). But even this law is not easy to understand, because when someone reads the Holy Scripture he must perceive its hidden meanings. This is no easy task, because humility and spiritual work are required if the reader is not to make misinterpretations. An external knowledge of the Scriptures is insufficient, although many people stop at this sort of knowledge. Inner understanding is required. Only a few people are able to understand the Scriptures, and this comes about “in the degree to which they practise the commandments”. The words of Holy Scripture are to be read by putting them into practice, not with conceit.

The words of Holy Scripture are also referred to as God’s commandments because they were given by God to lead man to salvation. They are not merely human injunctions, because the Lord Himself is hidden in them, and those who eagerly keep them will find Him . It is impossible not to find God in the commandments that He gave, and peace is the sign that God has been found .

It is an inviolable spiritual law that the law of freedom, which is present in Holy Scripture, is read by means of true knowledge, understood through the practice of the commandments and fulfilled through the mercies of Christ. When one of these three factors is absent, the law of the spirit is not the law of freedom. Without Christ’s mercies man cannot be made perfect. Moreover, if someone preserves these essential prerequisites and has a profound understanding of God’s commandments, even then he should not grow conceited, lest he fall victim to the spirit of blasphemy.

These laws of the spiritual life are indispensable for a person striving to find God’s will, and anyone who does not keep them will not be able to achieve his goal.

b) The Spiritual Law in Man’s Striving for Purity

Man was created by God to have communion with Him. However, sin, understood as a break in man’s relationship with God, inflicted first spiritual death then later physical death on man. So man has to strive to return to the relationship he had with God before the Fall. This co-operation between God and man is interpreted as meaning that God effects salvation, but man co-operates by his own free consent on this path. It is necessary, though, for man’s struggle to be governed by certain spiritual rules and laws. Just as on the human level every sporting contest presupposes the observance of certain rules and regulations, so in the spiritual contest too there are certain spiritual laws, which we encounter in the text of St Mark the Ascetic that we are considering.

Firstly it is stressed that sin is a fire which burns. “Sin is a blazing fire.” This being so, whether sin is ignited or extinguished depends on whether or not we throw on fuel. Man is responsible for the existence of sin because it depends on his free will and his attitude towards the struggle that he must undertake. Even a small sin has to be blotted out, because if he leaves it, it will drag him into bigger evils.

Deliverance from sin is called “healing”, “salvation”, and “perfection”. Healing is achieved when someone gives heed to his conscience and acts in accordance with its promptings. He should not, of course, listen to his heart or his conscience “until evil has been eradicated”. A person experiences salvation when he loves the word of truth and when he does not uncritically reject other people’s criticism of him. Perfection is not to be found in human virtues, but is hidden in the Cross of Christ. This means that, in order to achieve perfection, man must take Christ’s Cross upon himself, struggle to be healed, and accept troubles and temptations, as we shall see further on.

Man must seek the remission of his sins with his whole soul. When he sins in secret, he should not try to hide, because everything is known to God and he will be called to account. The forgiveness of a person’s sins, however, is inseparably linked with his love for humility. It is attained within the temperate climate of humility, and this humility reveals itself where there is no criticism of others. By contrast, someone who condemns others “seals his own wickedness”.

Deliverance from sin begins with expelling every voluntary evil from the nous. A person casts out every thought and imagination which he cultivates on his own. Once this has been done, he then fights against his predisposition to sin, in other words, against the involuntary recollection of former sins. Subsequently he does battle with his passions.

Man’s return to God is called repentance. The true test of repentance and whether someone is pleasing to God, is when he is derided by the foolish.

The struggle to be purified begins with a person’s renunciation, which does not just mean renouncing money, “but all forms of vice”. Vices mainly come to light in the “workplace of the nous”, so a person must take care that this inner workplace of the nous is not seized or overcome by the demons. This workplace of the nous is taken by the demons when someone does not examine his own sins but those of his neighbour. A person must patiently persevere in examining his conscience, as it reveals itself within him. If he does not act in this way he will not be able to endure bodily suffering for the sake of godliness. This means that physical exertions to put God’s will into practice demand inner noetic activity.

In this inner process, a man must pay heed to his thoughts, because it is possible to think about the same thing either simply or passionately. It is God Who judges and weighs up every one of our thoughts. His knowledge of our thoughts is unerring. Since human beings weigh things up by appearances, whereas God examines the heart, we must reveal our mind to Christ the Lord and display it before Him. Anyone who remains vigilantly in his nous and examines it, will not be tired when temptations come, and will be able to confront them. Otherwise, if a person is not watchful, he will have to endure “whatever trial comes”. When man’s nous is delivered from bodily cares it acquires a certain sensitivity and insensitivity, and “the more clearly it sees the craftiness of the enemy”.

Inner activity is accompanied by what the ascetics refer to as contrition of heart, which is acquired by repentance and self-accusation. However, as St Mark the Ascetic tells us, there is a contrition which is beneficial, which leads to penitence, and there is an abnormal and harmful contrition, which injures the heart.

Every human deed and action has its outward and inward aspect. Everyone sees the outside, but God sees the act from the inside: the intention and aim with which it is performed. Sometimes an action 11 ins good, but it is not done for a good purpose, just as another action appears to be evil, but the motive of the person who carries it inn is good. This is sometimes due to inexperience or ignorance, sometimes to an evil intention, and sometimes to a pious aim. There are also circumstances where a man does something apparently }i ii id, but does it in order to defend himself from his neighbour. We have to take our inner world into account because “God assesses m actions and our intentions”.

Finally man’s whole endeavour should be directed towards doing good in order to fulfill God’s will, because “to journey without direction is wasted effort”.

In the course of striving for purification, a person encounters many difficulties, and great discernment and attentiveness are required. The ascetics who struggled in this spiritual contest have much advice to offer every contender. St Mark the Ascetic gives us some of these golden counsels.

When man sins in secret, he should not try to hide, because everything is known and open to God and he will be called to account. This is a very important rule in the spiritual life. Man should not be self-sufficient in his struggle, nor should he feel that he will not be overpowered by evil, especially when he is starting to do something wrong, because to think like this means he has already been defeated. Anyone who tests all things and holds fast what is good will refrain from all evil. Continuous self-control is required in everything. A person should aim high and do good with all his strength, and particularly at a time when he needs to do something great, he should not turn to a lesser good. Evidently at that moment man’s soul requires something substantial, some solid nourishment. The nous should be constantly watchful and do good when it remembers, and not fall into blind forgetfulness.

Man’s struggle, however, is not an individual affair. It does not just concern his inner realm, but also relates to the people who live with him. Other people’s advice is beneficial, but each person’s own experience is worth more. When someone praises another person who has given him material assistance, and does so on a merely human level without reference to God, his benefactor will later seem to him to be evil, Anyone who listens to the misfortunes of his enemies, will reap the harvest of his intentions; in other words, the things which he is pleased are happening to others will come to pass in his own life.

There is also a spiritual law on the subject of criticism we make of others, and criticism others make of us.

First of all, it is beneficial for us to accept censure. Other people’s criticism of us is preferable to their praise. If someone praises us hypocritically, sooner or later he will level an accusation against us. Anyone who praises his neighbour out of hypocrisy will in due course reproach him and bring disgrace on himself. If, however, someone wants to have praise from others without incurring blame, he should first welcome reproof for his sins.

Criticism is salutary because the word of truth converts the “generation of vipers” and saves people. So anyone who accepts the word of truth “accepts the divine Word”. On the other hand, if someone hates rebuke he has given himself over to passion of his own free choice.

The healing derived from reproof is most valuable when the criticism comes from believers who are acting in God’s name. In that case the man paralysed by sin receives forgiveness because of the faith of those who are carrying him. This needs to be said, because some rebukes are given in malice and self-defence, and others are given out of fear of God and respect for truth.

Although criticism is beneficial, a person should avoid criticising others. It is better to pray devoutly for one’s neighbour than to rebuke him every time he sins. This applies particularly in the case of someone who has repented of his sin. “Cease rebuking” a man who has repented. And if someone asserts that he is rebuking him in God’s name, then, before reproving him, let him reveal his own sins, because obviously that will show that he is acting according to God’s will. Nor should anyone rebuke “a forceful man” for arrogance; rather this can be achieved by pointing out to him the danger of dishonour. Even the hard-hearted man benefits from being told about “deeper spiritual knowledge”.

In general, spiritual struggle is needed to make progress according to God’s will. No one should neglect praxis’ and depend on a merely theoretical knowledge, because then he is like someone holding a staff of reed instead of a knife, and in time of war and temptation it will pierce his hand and he will be poisoned before his enemies manage to poison him. In this contest it is essential to have a blameless and beneficial brokenness of heart, which is acquired through vigil, prayer and patient acceptance of what comes. Whoever goes through life with these three together, without destroying the balance between them through excess, will be helped in everything else as well. On the other hand, he who is negligent and distracted will feel unbearable anguish when his soul leaves his body.

It is absolutely essential to struggle, but the grace of God makes a man worthy and helps him on his way, because “spiritual things are ruled by the grace of God” just as all material things are governed by gold.

c) The Spiritual Law on the Activity of the Passions and their Healing

According to the Orthodox ascetic method of our Church, when a sin is frequently repeated it becomes a passion, A passion is an illness which torments the soul and needs to be cured. It is a distortion of the energies of the soul, which instead of proceeding according to nature, take an unnatural course. Man must strive, therefore, to transform these powers of the soul. This struggle has rules of its own, which the holy Fathers describe, as St Mark the Ascetic does here.

The basic teaching of our holy Fathers is that the devil’s provocation comes first, with images, thoughts and fantasies; this is followed by assent; next comes sin; and then repeated sin becomes a passion. We see this too in St Mark the Ascetic’s teaching on asceticism.

He writes that wickedness is like an intricate net, and anyone who is careless when partially entangled “gets completely enmeshed”. In fact everything that happens “has a small beginning” and when it is nourished it gradually grows. The devil’s method is to “belittle” small sins, because otherwise he cannot lead a person on to committing greater ones.

Before the sin comes the “provocation” which is “an image-free stimulation in the heart”, a movement of the heart without any sort of visualisation, This provocation takes place in many different ways, sometimes by means of thoughts and images coming from outside, sometimes through the imagination, sometimes through thoughts and images originating from within.

It is impossible for a passion to come into being and exist without a thought, just as a cloud cannot be formed unless the winds blow. All the changes in our inner world arise from “the uneven quality of our thoughts”. Thoughts have received natural attributes from God, as have all visible things, and they have the ability to lead someone into good or evil. By virtue of this particular attribute of thoughts, a person who is led astray by them is blinded by them and cannot see the causes of sin, even though he can see its working. Precisely for this reason, a man who sins should blame “the thought, not the action”, because if the nous had not gone mi ahead and committed sin, the body would not have followed.

After the provocation of the thought, which is accompanied by Bulges, there follows “assent” on man’s part. A provocation which is ‘image-free”, in other words not connected with any visual image, does not involve any guilt. At this critical moment a person has the choice either to flee from the thought, like a brand plucked from the fire, or turn back until the fire blazes up. The fire signifies the provocation; the brand which can catch fire is man.

The outcome of consenting to the provocation and committing sin is ihat these images become established in man’s heart, in his inner realm, and then provocations and impulses to commit sin originate from there. These images engraved in the heart are described in various ways. At times they are called “images already established in the nous”, sometimes they are characterised as “thoughts activated and placed in the heart” and sometimes they are referred to as “evil dwelling in the heart” (183). The Fathers are fully aware that, just as there are some snakes which live in the countryside and others in houses, so there are some passions which take shape in the thoughts, and others which come about through action. The evil that has settled in the heart is the product of long-standing habit. Ii is certainly the case that the evil which someone muses on in his thoughts “makes the heart brazen”.

The existing images already present in the heart give rise to temptation and are a source of stimulation and provocation. Consequently, there is one sort of provocation that comes through external images, and another which comes from the images ingrained within a person. The former “arise during thinking” and “precede”, whereas the latter, those images established in the nous, arise from the former and are more pernicious and stubborn.

From a pleasure-loving heart contaminated thoughts and words arise. It sometimes happens that man’s nous is still, but the images present in his inner realm are stirred up and provoke the nous to passion. In that case it is certain that the nous was captured beforehand by thoughts, then brought these thoughts and placed them in the heart.

Provocation, assent and repeated sin create a passion, in accordance with the irrefutable spiritual law which exists in man’s spiritual life. Indeed, many passions come into being, as passions reinforce each other.

St Mark the Ascetic evaluates the passions and records their causes. All vice is caused by self-esteem and sensual pleasure. The love of money is the root of all evil. Moreover, praise from other people is the source of lust. These three passions, namely avarice, self-esteem and sensual pleasure, blind man’s nous. It is significant that these three passions, which are described as leeches, are loved by their mother, folly. From them originate wrath, anger, wars, murders and the whole list of other evils. Elsewhere St Mark refers to the “twelve shameful passions”.

The passions are linked. Even if one passion is absent, the action of another passion makes up for it. For instance, if someone abandons the world, thus ridding himself of the passion of avarice, but leads a life of self-indulgence, he is doing in essence what he would have done if he had money, although he has none. Although he has no money at his disposal, he is nevertheless not liberated from the passion of avarice. Likewise, a self-controlled man who has acquired money is a brother to the sort of person we have just described. The difference is that, although he has the same mother, namely “noetic enjoyment”, he has another father, “a different passion”. So in both cases the underlying fact is that the nous delights in avarice, although the results differ.

Self-indulgence is a strange passion, and also the source of other passions. The thoughts of a pleasure-loving man are unstable, because sometimes he weeps and laments for his sins, and at other times he fights and contradicts his neighbour in his pursuit of pleasures. Moreover, self-indulgence is the mother of other passions, as happens with other passions as well. Self-indulgence leads to negligence, and negligence to forgetfulness of everything God has bestowed on us. Forgetfulness as such has no power, but gains strength in proportion to our negligence.

The passions are cunning and difficult to diagnose. For instance, someone can praise another person, and accusation and reproach may be concealed in his praise. Or someone else can be outwardly humble, bin esteem himself highly and pursue the empty glory of the world. Λ lime will come, however, when the truth hidden in falsehood will be exposed. It sometimes happens that someone praises another person while at the same time condemning him. Such a person is pos-lessed by self-esteem and envy. He is trying to hide his jealousy through praise, and through criticism to appear better than the other person.

Passions have many grave consequences, as the spiritual law un-derlines. By the three passions of avarice, self-esteem and sensual pleasure man’s “nous is made blind”. Again, if someone is fulfilling a commandment but is serving a passion, through evil thoughts be destroys the goodness of the action. The deceiver who does something evil in secret is a snake who lies on the road and bites people. Anyone who mingles his own will with a commandment is an “adulterer”, and because of his stupidity he suffers pain and dishonour in his life. Ignorance and forgetfulness are hell. Seeking human glory will bring shame on a man. At the time of death, when the soul leaves the body, a self-indulgent heart Incomes a prison and chain for the soul. Anyone who becomes angry with his neighbour on account of riches, glory or pleasure, does not realise that God orders all things with justice. A person who schemes against his neighbour cannot receive mercy from God and be saved, just as sheep and wolves cannot feed together.

Within the spiritual law there is also an account of the means by which man can be cured of passions. St Mark the Ascetic gives various counsels for this purpose.

Firstly he stresses the need for repentance, as we have seen already. Anyone who sins openly and does not repent, but has suffered nothing before his death, will face judgment without mercy. Both repentance and healing are required. A person should imitate the blind man in the Gospel and cast away his garment, because by so doing he will draw near to Christ and become His disciple and a preacher of more perfect doctrines. We must understand that God and our conscience know all the secrets concealed in our inner world. Therefore we should try to put these things right. When someone sins without any need, it is hard for him to repent, since his sin was committed deliberately.

Healing from the passions and the images which exist within our soul and constantly provoke us cannot be achieved “except through the action of the Holy Spirit”. So we must seek God’s help through prayer. When someone wanted to do evil, but prayed out of habit, he was providentially prevented from sinning, and later thanked God.

Along with help from God, we must struggle to be healed and delivered from the passions. One method is to know the causes of the passions, because he who is ignorant of them falls easily. We should eliminate the occasions for the three passions, avarice, self-esteem and sensual pleasure; this means we should not love the world, but not that we should hate God’s creation. It is impossible to overcome a passion unless we hate the cause of every vice, namely self-esteem and sensual pleasure. We must hate avarice, self-esteem and sensual pleasure, which are mothers of the vices and stepmothers of the virtues. That is what is meant by saying that we should not entangle ourselves in the affairs of this life, because anyone who wants to overcome the passions while entangled in the world, is like a man who tries to put out a fire with straw. We will be able to see the devil’s tricks when we reject all thoughts of greed.

We should not fulfill the desires of the flesh, because only then, with God’s help, will we be healed. At the same time we must strive to acquire the corresponding virtues. A person can kill evil with self-restraint and hope in God. A hard heart is cured by suffering hardship and affliction. The continuous remembrance of God and the recollection of divine retribution help a man not to sin, as happened in the case of the King and Prophet David, and they also help to deliver him from passions. When someone hears evil words he should be angry with himself and not with those who speak them, because listening in a sinful way will make him sinful too, and the form of the sins he hears about will also be imprinted on him. If someone comes across people gossiping idly, he should consider himself responsible for their talk, or at least realise that he is liable for an old debt.

The struggle to heal the passions has to be all-embracing and conducted on many fronts. It should not be restricted to one passion. It is possible for someone to cut off one passion for the sake of greater self-indulgence. Sometimes such a man is praised by those unaware of his aim, and he may even be unaware himself that his effort is futile.

d) The Spiritual Law in Temptations, Afflictions and Trials

Since his Fall man has worn the ‘garments of skin’ of decay and mortality, which is why he has many temptations in his life. There is nobody who is not tempted. Temptations come from the devil, death or sin.

It is not temptations and different sorts of trials in our lives that are the problem, but how we deal with them. On this issue too a spiritual law applies, which determines the effect of troubles and trials in our life, and how we can confront them. St Mark the Ascetic is eloquent on this point.

In a significant chapter he writes, “The enemy of the spiritual law, knowing what is just, seeks only the assent of our nous”. The devil is here characterised as the enemy of the spiritual law, who wants us to consent to his provocation and commit sin. The devil does this because he knows from experience that, once we have been overcome by sin, he will either oblige us to undergo the labours of repentance, or else, if we do not repent, he will torment us with misfortunes beyond our control. Moreover, in the time of temptations he will make us complain, so as to increase our torment here and, when we die, to prove our lack of faith through our impatience.

That is why no one should attempt to solve a difficult problem through argument, “but in the way which the spiritual law enjoins”, in other words, with patience, prayer and hope in God alone. If the devil is an enemy of the spiritual law, the Christian is its friend.

The temptations in our life can be either voluntary or involuntary. Voluntary temptations are those which we bring upon ourselves through our sins, and involuntary ones are those which come without us provoking them, like illnesses, death and tribulations of various sorts. But labours too can be voluntary or involuntary. They are voluntary when associated with our work and struggle to be delivered from the passions, and involuntary when they come through illness or various difficulties.

When we deliberately sow evil deeds, then in accordance with the spiritual law we shall later reap wickedness against our will. Here God’s justice is revealed. A person cannot say that temptation comes without him wanting it, because in reality he loves what causes the temptation. If someone does not want to suffer evil as a result of sin, he should not want to inflict it, “since the suffering of it inevitably follows its infliction”.

Apart from this inviolable law of the spiritual life, we should be aware that great effort is required to keep Christ’s commandments, by which we are cleansed from sin. Fulfilling the will of Christ entails much labour and suffering. But anyone who does not prefer to suffer voluntarily for the sake of truth will be chastened more painfully by involuntary suffering.

We should pray that involuntary temptations may not come to us, but when they come, we should accept them as our due. There are many alternations between good and evil in our lives, and the important thing is to accept this alternation calmly, simply and with equanimity, because then God “will resolve all inequity”.

As well as doing this, we should face temptations with prayer and patience, because anyone who tries to overcome them without these spiritual means will become more entangled in them instead of driving them away. Prayer should be “with understanding”, in other words, with good, simple thoughts free from resentment. In this way I person can patiently accept everything that happens, whereas he who bears resentment has not yet attained pure prayer.

Temptations cause affliction and pain, as do various other circumstances in our lives. Affliction is the atmosphere in which fallen man passes his life. However, affliction does not necessarily result from sins, since there are people who are well-pleasing to God but are tested in this respect. The distinction lies in the different ways that sinners and the righteous face afflictions.

A subtle point to note is that, when sorrow comes, an inexperienced person may fall into sensual self-indulgence, such that he who laments the affliction which has befallen him “is attached to sensual pleasure”. That is why, according to St Mark, at a time of affliction we should be on our guard against the provocation to sensual pleasure, because in these circumstances it is readily welcomed, since it relieves the affliction.

A knowledgeable person, however, who is aware of the spiritual laws and turns all tribulations and sorrows to his advantage, confronts the sufferings which afflict his soul and his life in an appropriate and salutary way. He considers the outcome of involuntary affliction, which is the destruction of a sin. Every distressing event reminds a wise person of God, but it brings corresponding affliction on someone who forgets Him. A person engaged in this struggle knows that eternal blessings have been prepared for men, and they will enjoy them through affliction. It also benefits ill-natured people to suffer and be distressed, because misfortunes act as medicines to heal them through repentance. As St Mark writes very succinctly, “Even when nothing is going wrong, be ready for affliction”. Every affliction accepted for God’s sake is “a genuine act of holiness”. This is a matter of real not sentimental piety, which is proved by having passed through affliction. No one can maintain that he has acquired virtue without suffering affliction, since virtue obtained without affliction has not been tested. Anyone in the grip of ignorance of these spiritual laws objects to things that are beneficial.

A particular temptation which causes suffering is injustice inflicted by other people. Even in this regard the spiritual laws are at work, as St Mark the Ascetic explains. He says that it is better for human beings to wrong us than for demons to do so, but he who is well-pleasing to the Lord overcomes both. Someone who commits injustice in secret is worse than those who do so openly.

On the other hand, human injustices are beneficial, when they are confronted in the right way. He who suffers injustice at the hands of Others escapes sins, but at the same time he finds help in proportion to the wrong that he has borne. Censure from others afflicts the heart, but if the person who has been wronged patiently accepts the reproach, this generates purity. What is more, when the victim of injustice prays for those who wrong him, “he throws the demons into disorder”. But anyone who opposes those who are unjust is wounded by the demons.

When we are harmed, insulted or persecuted by someone, we should look to the future not the present, and we shall find that he has brought us much good. So anyone who believes in Christ, Who promises recompense, will readily endure every injustice “in proportion to his faith”.

In general St Mark the Ascetic teaches that the afflictions and temptations in our lives are of great spiritual benefit to us, both in the present life and in the life to come. On this issue also the spiritual laws are irrefutable. Anyone who keeps God’s commandments should also expect temptation, because love of Christ is tested by what is contrary to the provisions of the commandment. However, by these small afflictions and labours we shall escape more severe suffering. We should trade all the troubles of this present life for future blessings, and arrange from now to exchange them, then our struggle will never weaken through carelessness. Only with prayer and repentance can we escape all the evils and misfortunes which occur.

e) The Spiritual Law in Relation to Spiritual Gifts

The spiritual law also applies to a person’s gifts, his so-called virtues, and generally to everything good in his life. It is not easy for someone to preserve these gifts and for them to work for his salvation. Sometimes they can be the cause of down-fall and destruction.

First of all, everything good that we have is due to God. St Mark refers three times to this subject. In one place he says: “Everything pod is given by the Lord providentially”, elsewhere he states: “All good things come from God providentially”, and somewhere else he declares: “Every blessing comes from the Μ providentially”.

This is an important point, because no one can or should boast about any of his gifts, whether they relate to his very existence, his soul, his body or even his salvation. The expression ‘providentially’ is characteristic, because it shows that the gifts are given for a particular purpose. Those who have gifts are “servants of what is good”. He who believes that good things are given by God will not lose them, which means that those who claim them as their own will lose them. Those who fail to grasp this and overlook this reality are ungrateful, thankless and spiritually idle.

This is connected with the fact that nobody should boast about his supposed successes on his spiritual path. Anyone who prides himself on the praises he receives from other people should expect dishonour without fail. “With elated by praise, be sure disgrace will follow”. As a consequence St Mark the Ascetic advises us not to become disciples of someone who praises himself, in case we learn pride instead of humility.

A spiritual law operates with regard to gifts as well. Someone with a spiritual gift can preserve it by feeling compassion for those who do not have it. On the other hand, an arrogant and boastful man will lose it on account of his arrogance. So if a person has a spiritual gift he should use it for the benefit of others, in the certainty that this is God’s work. When one man helps another by word or deed, then both the benefactor and the beneficiary should regard this as the gift of God. Anyone who does not understand this will fall under the power of someone who does, which obviously means the devil. When a person advises his neighbour he should understand that this is God’s gift, because the one who advises does so in accordance with what he knows from experience, which is certainly God’s doing, and the other who receives the advice gains benefit through the working of God, Who acts in proportion to his faith.

The virtues are fruits of the Holy Spirit, and not just energies and actions on the human level. As light comes from the sun, so God is the source of every virtue, because without God man can do nothing. Virtue is one, but operates in many different ways, just as all wealth is the same, but is acquired by a variety of means.

Keeping God’s commandment is actually different from virtue, although each gives rise to the other. When someone does what is laid down in the law, he is keeping a commandment, but if he really finds delight in fulfilling the divine commandment, and does it joyfully, that is rightly called virtue.

St Mark did not compose a systematic treatise setting out all the virtues, but within the condensed fragments which make up his text the reader can discover many truths about the spiritual law as it applies to the subject of virtues. We will record a few instances.

We have already looked at St Mark the Ascetic’s teaching on sin and the passions, and we identified the fact that passions have mothers and daughters, and also that there is mutual interaction between the passions. The same happens with virtues as well. Good things reinforce one another, and they continually encourage the man who has a share in them to press ahead.

Faith, which Holy Scripture calls “the substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1), is actually “the indwelling of Christ”. Those who are unaware of this have failed the test. Faith and knowledge are natural companions, which means that anyone who has real faith has true knowledge as well. Both are weakened by the three basic passions: avarice, self-esteem and sensual pleasure. True knowledge comes from the remembrance of God, from unceasing prayer. Without remembrance of God, any knowledge that might exist is false. When the blind man received his sight and saw the Lord, he no longer called him Son of David, as he did at first, but confessed Him to be the Son of God and worshipped Him, and the same happens with us. True faith is linked with truth, and knowledge precedes faith. First a person knows, then he believes. He who does not know the truth cannot truly have faith. Finally, steadfast faith is “a strong tower’, because then Christ comes to be all for the person who believes.

Humility is a great spiritual gift. A humble person always speaks the truth, and anyone who contradicts him is like the servant who struck Christ on the face. It is impossible for a humble person to justify his actions because humility and self-justification are mutually exclusive, just as fire and water cannot be combined. Even if a humble person is completely unlearned, because he possesses the truth he becomes wiser than the wise. Although he may acquire wisdom in speaking, it will still not be able to harm him.

St Mark the Ascetic ascribes great importance to prayer. He knows that there are many ways of praying, but he is also aware that no method of prayer is harmful, unless what the person is doing is not prayer “but the activity of Satan”. True prayer is bound up with spiritual knowledge, because someone who prays with the body and not with spiritual knowledge is like the blind man who called Christ the Son of David. There is also a link between real prayer and a clear conscience, and each needs the other. According to St Mark’s advice, at times when we remember God, we should increase our prayer, because when we forget to pray, Christ will remind us. During prayer Christ touches a person’s eyes and restores his noetic sight. Tears are the proof of this. No one, however, should be proud of shedding tears, because this is God’s gift. Prayer is of great value because it restores the negligent and brings them back.

A person who has spiritual gifts, and in whom Christ dwells, is meek, charitable and merciful to his brothers, Christ gives knowledge of truth to the gentle. A meek person does not try God’s patience and his conscience does not accuse him of frequent transgressions. A patient man has great understanding. Really intelligent people are those who control their own desires. What is more, someone who has Christ within him has a merciful heart that he shows to others, so the compassionate person will receive God’s mercy.

He who has Christ within him becomes a confessor, and proclaims the truth which he knows and experiences in his life. However much humiliation someone receives for confessing Christ’s truth, he will be glorified a hundred times more by the people. It is right to do good for the sake of things to come.

3. Conclusions

St Mark the Ascetic’s text on the spiritual law is important because in a few succinct and meaningful sentences he lays bare all the secrets of man’s spiritual journey from his fallen state to glorification and holiness. Being proficient himself in this spiritual path, he recorded it in concise phrases that present his own spiritual experience, He himself wrote that if someone says wise words but does not put them into practice, he grows rich unjustly, and the fruit of his labours will go into strangers’ houses. This implies that St Mark wrote words that stem from his own personal experience.

The spiritual law operates inescapably in our lives whether we are struggling to purify our hearts from passions, being cured of sin and passions, going through a time when various temptations befall us, or training to acquire God’s good gifts. Therefore we ought to have an appropriate spiritual guide and go forward with humility and prayer. Repentance is essential on this spiritual path.

It is worth noting how this text by St Mark the Ascetic begins and ends.

It starts with the certainty that God is the beginning, middle and end of everything good. This is experienced in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit (2), in other words, within the Church, which is Christ’s Body and the community of [glorification]. And it ends by exhorting us to do as much good as we can and “at a time of greater good” not to turn “to a lesser”.

This signifies that the spiritual journey begins with lowly things and constantly advances upwards. This progress takes place through God’s energy and our synergy. When we are called by God to various renunciations and ‘deaths’ so that we can experience the corresponding resurrections, we must not lose heart so that we can climb up high. To go backwards, or even to stand still, means falling.

All in all, anyone who is ignorant of the spiritual laws and transgresses them will suffer many trials in his life, with eternal consequences.

1. The phrase translated here as “with the keenest sense of honour” reads in Greek “the most philotimos”. The adjective philotimos and its related noun philotimo or philotimia convey a Greek concept that has no exact English equivalent. Although the literal meaning of philotimo is ‘love of honour’, it implies a generosity towards God and others, motivated by enthusiasm and love, which goes beyond what is strictly necessary. I have sometimes rendered philotimos as “honourable” or “valiant”. – Translator’s note

From Hesychia and Theology: The Context for Man’s Healing in the Orthodox Church by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos.