Since I am speaking at an Orthodox monastery and seminary, I will not pretend to teach you about asceticism. I hope, through your prayers, that God will teach me. I will simply mention one principle from the writings of our ascetic fathers that strikes me as important in the context of this talk. When some modern Orthodox theologians speak of asceticism in the context of personhood, they often say very little or remain rather abstract. They talk sometimes rather generically of love and eros, but without unpacking the theme. One reason for this reticence regarding asceticism among these writers, particularly the Greek ones, is the threat of pietism or salvation through morality. Asceticism is perceived as potentially fostering a self-righteous and Pharisaic attitude which forgets “the gift of God” and thinks that salvation is earned through one’s ascetic feats. This, of course, is indeed a danger, and has surfaced as a problem several times in the history of the Church. But to make the anomalies a rule is unfortunate.
The principle, then, I would like to mention, is that true Christian asceticism is inseparable from the commandments of Christ. Union with the person of Christ is the single goal of every Christian life. But such union does not take place abstractly or intellectually. It occurs through the practice of His commandments. St. Mark the Ascetic writes perceptively regarding this: “the Lord is hidden in His own commandments, and He is to be found there in the measure that He is sought.” We find Christ in His commandments, whether to love, to be merciful, to be humble, to pray, to repent. The commandments of Christ are the mode of personhood, and they thus must become the focal point and content of all Christian asceticism. I should add that we can only fulfill the commandments, to quote St Mark again, “by the mercies of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is, our ascetic struggle from beginning to end revolves around, is dependent upon, and is fulfilled through, the person of Christ. Without a Christ-centered orientation, every form of asceticism, as well as every concept of the person, loses worth.
Dr Alexis Torrance is the Archbishop Demetrios College Chair of Byzantine Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He previously taught at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece. His work concentrates on monastic theology, sanctity, and the history of doctrine. He holds a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford.