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April 16, 2016

Love as the Essence of Asceticism in Orthodoxy

By Protopresbyter George Schoinas

In the midst of Great Lent, our Church raises before us the figure of a great ascetic and author of the Church, Saint John of Sinai.

He is the author of the Ladder, an ascetic book addressed mainly to monastics, and in proportion it is for each struggling Christian, because it describes the passions and each of their corresponding virtues, so that in the journey of this world we will reach the perfection of virtue.

To reach love and to reach dispassion. But because many times we take certain things for granted, I would like to talk about the obvious.

We are talking about a great ascetic, who comes to us shortly after the middle of Holy and Great Lent, and is displayed in our Church. He is an ascetic writer, who speaks of asceticism, purification of the passions, and all these beautiful things.

Many times however Christians, when they hear the word "asceticism", their minds go to some laborious process, which they imagine to be miserable, and a bit strange.

When they hear about the "passions", of which they must be purified, often Christians get a bit scared, and they sense something unpleasant is beginning, when someone begins to exercise it. Conversely the texts of the Church, in the beginning of Great Lent, tell us: "Let us make a bright beginning to the time of the Fast."

The Saints of the Church, the Holy Fathers of the Church, speak of asceticism with joy. They speak of the contest of purification of our passions with particular enthusiasm, with particular fervor, with particular harmony.

And someone will ask, why is it that we today, who are less ascetic Christians, tremble when we hear about asceticism? And we feel somewhat uncomfortable. Because, brethren, a great truth about our faith has escaped us.

Saint John Climacus summarizes it in three words: "eros conquers eros" ("ἔρως ἔρωτι νικᾶται"). That is, one love is conquered by another greater love.

What is it that keeps us tied to our passions? We have fallen in love with them!

In our fallen and impassioned state, we have come to love them and embrace them tightly. We are in love with our passions, with our gluttony, with our fornication, with our pride, with our ego, with our vanity, and so on.

And how can we be healed of these? Only with formal legal requirements? You should not be a slave of your stomach? You should not be a glutton? You should not be a fornicator? You should not be proud?

These things are all good, but I have the feeling that they are not able to fill someone with the earnest desire to cast away from themselves these passions.

So here comes Saint John Climacus who tells us, that in order to stop being in love with these things, our love for our earthly passions, a greater love must enter into our hearts!

Suddenly our asceticism is not about avoiding certain passions. Nor can we say is it an imitation of good deeds, or of virtues, but our asceticism changes its perspective, and this perspective of asceticism is not so obvious.

I will say that our asceticism begins to resemble the effort of someone who has fallen in love, to approach the person they fell in love with.

Let me present this example, without offending anyone. A certain man is in love with a woman. What does he do? He circles around her house, he goes up to her to talk to her, and at the opportune time the siege becomes more meaningful.

This is what asceticism is, when we do it out of love. Out of love and philotimo for our Christ.

Asceticism now acquires a dynamic character, and is not simply abstinence from evil, or doing good, but it is something more, it is the effort of the soul to siege Christ, and put Him within us, and enthrone Him in our hearts.

And this is what changes the disposition of people. Imagine someone telling you: "Do this! Do that! Don't do this! Don't do that!"

Spontaneously it creates a reaction, and often times people will do the opposite of what someone tells them to do. But then a loving person comes to you, and says: "If you love me, don't disappoint me, but please do this."

Immediately your disposition changes. This truth is brought forward to us by Saint John Climacus. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself says these things also: "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments."

Thus, He puts the love towards His person as that which will conquer false loves which lead us far from the path of His commandments. Therefore, this is how a Christian should practice their asceticism, to practice our spiritual efforts as a discipline of love. An erotic contest!

This is why the ascetics of our Church have no similarity with peculiar people, strange people, or, forgive me for using the expression, old spinsters and old bachelors. The ascetics of the Orthodox Church do not have such "weirdness"!

Why? Because essentially they are people of love.

They are in love and erotic. They are people who love, and this love pours out from their hearts towards Christ, giving themselves increasingly to greater efforts, greater asceticism, a greater siege of Christ.

Let us also, my brethren, siege Christ with such conviction.

From now on, our fasting, our prayers, our genuflections, our prostrations, whatever we do, loving our neighbor, avoiding condemnation, and all these good things, let us do them as a result of our love for Christ.

And what will happen? You will begin from an initial love for Christ by entering into such an effort, and the more you try with such a mindset, your heart will widen. You become increasingly capacious and embrace all people.

Now you are beginning to feel an initial love for Christ, and you feel it even more deeply, more broadly, you are embracing all people, you are embracing earth and heaven, and you are becoming Divine Love, a universal human being.

You are becoming a human being who is being lifted above the spatiotemporal boundaries we have on this earth, and are able to embrace all things, becoming exactly like the Saints of our Church, like Saint John of Sinai, who gained such love, this eros for Christ, and was thus able to cast away his other love for earthly things.

It could be said that you are becoming like the Holy Hieromartyr Gregory V, who conquered love, his love for earthly life, with another love. The love for Christ, the love for the confession of faith in the Gospel that Christ came to preach, and he sealed it with his own blood.

Such eros for Christ he had fearlessly, and it made him a martyr of the faith and confession, which is why today we celebrate his memory.

Let us pray that all of us will be inflamed in our hearts with this Divine Eros, and whatever we do in the Church, let us do it in such a loving and erotic way. Amen.

Source: From an audio homily delivered on April 9, 2016 at the Holy Annunciation Church in Piraeus. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.