Seek God First

Seek God First December 5, 2016

He also said, “Some have afflicted their bodies by asceticism, but they lack discernment, and so they are far from God.”[1]

As their life was one of constant ascetic struggle, it should be no surprise that many monks who Anthony would meet thought the whole extent of their monastic profession was to chastise their bodies, to afflict themselves with extreme fasting and little sleep, and other similar activities. They put their hope and faith in what they could do for themselves. This, however, was not what was expected for monk. Certainly asceticism was a good tool which could and would help many overcome various sinful passions, but no matter how much self-improvement was achieved by asceticism alone would not be good enough for actual spiritual perfection. Anthony knew that salvation could never achieved in that manner, for all it did was promote the notion that we can do all we need to do to save ourselves by ourselves without any external help.

Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When grace and humility are forgotten by a spiritual aspirant, spiritual delusion forms. Those who think they can save themselves through asceticism will find that no matter how far they have progressed in their labors, temptations still come to them. When such temptation comes,  instead of humbly realizing that the solution lies outside of themselves, that they need some guidance founded upon the wisdom of the saints, they will believe the solution lies within. That is, they will believe that they can find the right discipline to counter all their temptations, so that when one discipline does not seem to work they will abandon it for some new discipline, changing again and again throughout their life, finding none offer them foolproof methods to stop themselves from sinning. Through their pride, they will never seek the aid of others, and so they will end up finding themselves to be far from God. They have become too self-assured to listen to God.  Although they might put on the external form of holiness, in reality they will be able to be shown to have  abandoned the only real source of holiness:  God. Asceticism is a tool which God can and does use, but it is not an end in and of itself. Asceticism is meant to open the person practicing such discipline so they are ready to receive God.

Paul made it clear that spiritual discernment is to be had in and with love, and without it, all the apparent good we do is as nothing. “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1. Cor. 13: 3 RSV).  We must have God’s grace to make our actions effective. Since God is love, this means we must be open to the gracious dictates of love, to the direction such love suggests for our activity in the world.

Asceticism is a powerful tool, but as with any tool, if used without proper guidance, it is dangerous. Afflicting bodies by itself just leaves us empty and open for whatever comes to fill the void. Afflicting our bodies without understanding the purpose behind asceticism will turn a useful tool into one which leads us not to God but the hell which we make for ourselves. Our bodily afflictions will become the chains which keep us away from God instead of the means of liberating us from the chains of sin. This is why good spiritual directors remind ascetics the goal of their asceticism lies outside of asceticism itself so that such ascetics do not undue harm, not only to their bodies, but to their soul as well.  That is because those who wear themselves out in and through extreme bodily afflictions will not likely be able to have the strength and endurance needed to rise up and encounter God.

While it is true, extreme forms of bodily affliction might help prevent us from seeking after and engaging some particular vice like gluttony, mere avoidance of some vice does not make us holy  Avoiding vices is what is expected of us. Doing what is expected does not make us exceptional, and it is only through extraordinary virtue that holiness can be found in us. But it is only with God that we find ourselves capable of transcending the vices and become holy, or, as Mark the Monk explained, “Every good work that we do through or own nature causes us to abstain from its opposing evil, but without grace it cannot increase our holiness.”[2]

We must seek after is God and his loving grace. Discernment helps us to know how to remove all the barriers between us and grace. It is why we need to be wise, to make sure we understand the purpose of our actions, to make sure they truly keep us open to God so that we can receive God and find our rest in him. We must draw near to grace, and that means, to know ourselves, to know that we are nothing without God, no matter what we do. Only when we realize our nothingness apart from God will we have the discernment to understand our works without God are also nothing. We must know ourselves and so discern all things in that self-knowledge so that all we do we do to open ourselves up to God’s grace. St. Anthony expressed this well in his letters, wherein he said:

For if a man draws near to grace, then Jesus will say to him, “I will no longer call you servants, but I will call you my friends and by others: for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (John 15:15.). For those who have drawn near, and have been taught by the Holy Spirit, have known themselves according to their intellectual substance. And in the knowledge of themselves they have cried out and said, “For we have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but the spirit of adoption whereby we cry, Abba Father” (Rom. 8:15): that we may know what God has given us – “If we are sons, then we are heirs, heirs of God, and joint heirs with the saints” (Rom. 8:17).[3]

What Anthony wrote here applies not just with asceticism, but with any and all good works. Focus on the works without love, focus on the works as an end and not as a way to open ourselves up to God, then we will work and work and work without discernment and find our reward in the glory of the work instead of the glory which we should seek, the glory of God.

St. Paul told us what we must do: “Make love your aim” (Rom. 14:1a RSV). Love, which is God, is our aim. Such love, because God is love, opens us up to God. We can unite our love with God’s love, and so participate in the divine life through such love. Then we will find the image and likeness of God, the image and likeness of love, will be seen in and through us, and so we will truly be holy as God is holy because we will be lovers reflecting his divine love.

Our works, our pursuit of the virtues, are all to be understood as a part of our pursuit of being transformed into the image of love so that in and with that love, we can be united with Christ and receive God who is love.

God is the one who we should want. God, who is holy, wants us to be cleansed of all impurity, not so that we can then remain apart from him in our pride for what we have obtained, but so that we can then realize how empty we are without him and so become truly ready to be with him. The challenge, then, of those rightfully pursuing virtue is to remember that virtue apart from God is no true virtue but its vain imitation. This is not to say there is no good which is established in and through such pursuit, but so long as that limited good becomes the end which we seek for ourselves, it remains but a pale shadow of the good which we should want, for that true good, God, is the source of eternal beatitude. We will achieve some sort of good which is mixed with the darkness that comes from being separated from God.

For this reason, Ignatius Brianchaninov wrote: “Guard yourself from doing the good of fallen nature. By doing this good, you develop your own fall, you develop within your self-opinion and pride.”[4] Without God guiding us,  without God being the source and goal of our good, we have but our fallen perception of the good as the good which we should seek and we will find ourselves seeking an end which is not truly good. Through lack of discernment, our self-righteousness will keep us away from God because we will not attain the true righteousness which is known not in bodily discipline but in love.  This is why proper discernment is necessary, for without it, the lesser good will easily beguile us and keep us away from God, not just in our lifetimes, but for eternity.



[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984),3.

[2] Mark the Monk, “Those Who Imagine They Are Justified By Works,” in Mark the Monk: Counsels on the Spiritual Life. trans. Tim Vivian and Augustine Casiday (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 116.

[3] St. Antony, The Letters of St. Antony the Great. trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 12 [Letter IV].

[4] St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena. trans. Archimandrite Lazarus (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1997), 16.


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