An introduction to The Struggle For Virtue by Archbishop Averky
I have had The Struggle For Virtue by Archbishop Averky sitting in my kindle wishlist for a long while. I really wish I had just bought it sooner. I purchased the book and sat down with a cup of coffee to read the introduction.
That was all it took.
That was all it took.
The author himself has a fascinating history that’s worth a read on and of itself, but the short version is that he was born in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century to travelling parents, fell in love with the monastic tradition of the nation, and ultimately fled the persecution that descended upon that part of the world during the communist revolution. That has clearly impacted his writing, as the coming posts will show: he pulls no punches when speaking of man’s capacity for evil, especially in the political realm.
The subtitle of the book is “the essence and meaning of asceticism”. The introduction, as it should, seeks to define the terms of the book itself, namely “asceticism”. One — and only one—element of asceticism is the striving to perform good works:
the striving to perform good works is a necessary undertaking for all who desire to live an authentic spiritual life. Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father in heaven (Matt 7: 21)— to this the Lord Jesus Christ Himself testifies. In His farewell discourse with His disciples at the Mystical Supper, He decisively stated this condition: If you love Me, keep My commandments (John 14: 15).
Key note: this striving is necessary, not sufficient. Let us remember, lest we fall into the error of Pelagius.
This desire to perform good works is a struggle, however. It is not our natural inclination in our fallen state.
Every time we would like to perform some good work, we must overcome and suppress in ourselves one evil habit or another that protests against the good work we would like to accomplish. In this manner, a battle emerges in the soul between good aspirations and evil habits.
When we strive for good works, we must battle against our nature, which has no such desire. This, in essence, is the proper understanding of the often used term “spiritual warfare”.
he who desires success in the spiritual life must by all possible means force himself to perform good works as often and as varied as possible.
As is the case in any warfare, then, you cannot overcome your enemy by a single attack. Wars are fought in numerous battles, over great time. No one simply executes a single attack and declares themselves the victor. This is also true of the spiritual life; our wagingnof spiritual warfare must be a constant barrage of attacks against our fallen nature in form of good works (which Archbishop Averky later categorizes by our Lord’s two greatest commandments: to love God and love neighbor).
This constant practice of performing good works bears the name of “asceticism,” and one who practices the performance of good works by forcing himself is called an “ascetic.” Inasmuch as asceticism is the foundation of the spiritual life and its primary instrument, the science of the spiritual life is itself normally called “askesis.”
And so a fuller definition appears. While striving for good works is a piece, the greater image of the ascetic is one who’s striving manifests itself in good works and does so with rapidity.
the word “ascetic,” having been derived from the Greek askitis, in no way implies a kind of superstitious fanatic occupying himself with self- torture for who knows what reason, as many secular people think. Instead, according to its original meaning, it means a “fighter,” as is indicated by a very characteristic analogy used by St Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians (9: 24– 27), comparing physical and spiritual exercises in the attainment of one’s desired goal
This is encouraging because even in Orthodox circles, where we are told constantly that the goal of Christian spirituality is to become an ascetic, we are often only given one example of the ascetic, namely, the monastic. Yet, one who struggles against their nature and performs good works can be found anywhere. As the old saying goes, the Church recognizes two paths to salvation: marriage and monasticism. I think a lot of us married folks often get the impression that our labors are not “real” asceticism because that belongs to the monks who pray without ceasing. Such ascesis is just one form of asceticism, however, and it is encouraging to see the terminology define broadly from the start here.
This constant opposition by the law of sin, which lodges in the flesh, makes asceticism necessary. The essence of asceticism consists in constantly forcing oneself, constantly making oneself to do not that which the sin living in us wants to do, but rather that which the law of God, the law of good, requires.
Indeed. Our struggle is largely internal.
The ascetic is one who forces himself to do everything that is conducive to growth and development in the spiritual life and does nothing that would prevent this.
This highlights an additional element of asceticism: direction. Going back to the warfare example, if a battle is being waged and the enemy is being forced to retreat, in order to gain total victory, one cannot at that point turn back, but instead must keep pressing against his opponent.
Good works do not have power and significance in and of themselves, but only as an indication and external expression of a good disposition, a good aspiration of the soul
James 2 comes to mind.
the true ascetic strives to uproot from his soul evil dispositions, evil habits, and evil will, and in their place to plant and firmly inculcate good dispositions, good habits, and good will.
Much better than a warfare analogy is that of the garden, as seen here.
“Fear evil habits,” says one of the greatest instructors of asceticism, St Isaac the Syrian, “more than demons.”
This can catch some by surprise. I come from a Protestant background, and much of my upbringing was concerned with warring against demons of all shapes and sizes. I often think that while my parents were protestants, the would have added Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness to the Bible if it meant people would take spiritual warfare more seriously.
I never got too deep into that wing of the charismatic movement, opting myself for the Reformed tradition, where I was instructed that the battle was more internal. In this, my Reformed past fit well into Orthodoxy. However, many Protestant readers would be scandalized by this statement.
The human soul, being divine in origin, always aspires towards God. It cannot find full satisfaction in anything earthly and, suffering severely in its alienation from God, it can find rest only in God. The human soul can attain this salvific communion with God only through the fulfillment of the commandments of love for God and neighbor.
Exactly! We cannot become spiritually satisfied in the things of this world. They will always leave us longing, and this speaks to why that is the case: our souls are divine in origin. Attempting to satisfy the soul by the world may work for a time, but only as mere distraction. I suppose you could say our souls otherwise get homesick. And the means to fulfill the soul’s desire is through love of God and love of neighbor. Far from “sola fide”, love of God requires us to keep His commandments (John 14:15), and good works are the natural result and means of loving one’s neighbor. Works will always play a part of a faith that is not dead (James 2:20), and “dead” faith makes for a homesick soul.
Should everyone, all Christians, be ascetic strugglers? This question is tantamount to asking: is everyone created by God and destined by Him for the spiritual life and spiritual communion with their Creator?
Asceticism alone, which unites man with God, the Source and Giver of all good things, is the true path to that inviting beacon of happiness to which everyone living on this earth so impetuously strives.
I suppose the old adage cited before could be rephrased as “the Church recognizes two paths of asceticism: marriage and monasticism” since asceticism just is the path to salvation. It encompasses the entire enterprise of our striving for God.
This is why asceticism, to one degree or another, is without doubt essential for everyone without exception: it is a common good, a common property. One who shuns asceticism is his own enemy, depriving himself of the highest good: peace of conscience and blessed communion with God.
Amen. Without asceticism, we lose communion with God. This may seem foreign to many Christians in the modern era, where sharing in the suffering of Christ is not emphasized or even considered, but this is what the Holy Fathers speak of constantly. This is what it means to have faith in God. We strive ceaselessly for communion with God.
Communion with God requires us to love God.
Loving God requires us to keep His commandments.
Keeping His commandments requires us to do good works.
Doing good works requires us to battle against our fallen nature.
Battling against our fallen nature requires us to constantly repent, pray, and have faith in our Savior.