The theology of asceticism
XVII Ecumenical Conference
Lecture by Metropolitan FILARET, Patriarchal esarch of Bielorussia
The meaning of asceticism consists not in developing the capabilities of the “old man”, but in being joined to the new humanity in Christ
Bose, 9 September 2009
Patriarchal esarch of Bielorussia
I sincerely thank the father superior Enzo Bianchi for the invitation to participate in the work of today’s 17th international forum on Russian and Orthodox spirituality. I wish to express sincere gratitude to all whose efforts during these seventeen years have made this forum possible ? a forum significant for our times and very important for Christ’s holy Church. I feel great joy at having the possibility to be here among you and to share some reflections on how the Orthodox tradition views the spiritual struggle.
“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
With these words begins the divine liturgy in every Orthodox church. But every address to God should be preceded by this initial doxology, because, according to Nicholas Cabasilas, it “puts aside oneself and everything that is one’s and glorifies the Lord for the sake of the Lord Himself, for the sake of His power and glory”. Two reasons impel me to begin my reflections on the theology of asceticism with exactly this consideration of this God-bearing father. First of all, the aim of asceticism is dispassion. As we know, the acquisition of dispassion is defined as the highest virtue in many cultures, among them also in those that are in no wise connected with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Only in Christianity, however, the sources of dispassion are centered in the divine-human nature of the Son of God–Son of Man. That is, the aim of Christian asceticism is not the development of personal human capacities, but something entirely different. This aim is the seeking of ways of communion with God: man’s Creator, man’s Savior, man’s Comforter. For this reason the glorification of the Lord for the sake of the Lord Himself, for the sake of His power and glory comes as man’s peculiar response to the evangelical invitation: If you want to follow me, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me (Mt 16, 24).
Secondly, we have turned to the thought of St Nicholas Cabasilas because the subject of our reflections – the spiritual struggle – obligates the Christian to be particularly attentive with regard to one another and with regard to oneself. This spiritual, I would even say evangelical attention receives its ideal incarnation in the divine liturgy. In this divine service the Lord Pantocrator Himself gathers us into one whole. It is namely for the sake of this gathering, for the sake of this eucharistic uniting of the faithful that He gave His only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish, but might have eternal life (Jn 3, 16).
The unity of all and of each is not only compared to the harmony of members of one body, but becomes absolutely objective, because the holy Church is the Body of Christ, the Body of the Son of God, given to the world of men, for God so loved the world (Jn 3, 16). This is the Orthodox vision of the chief aim of asceticism and of the means commanded by God to achieve it. With this ideal as our point of reference, we will try with spiritual sobriety and with humility to draw nearer to the common Christian understanding of what is the spiritual struggle.