Legalistic Moralism Knows No Lasting Peace

Legalistic Moralism Knows No Lasting Peace March 8, 2024

St. Poimen Greek Orthodox Broterhood Arizona, USA: Saint Poemen / Wikimedia Commons

Abba Poemen, an influential abba, gave advice when monks came to him for spiritual direction. Often, they had questions for him which indicated they had some sort of misunderstanding concerning the spiritual life, a misunderstanding which is common not just for ascetics, but by Christians from all walks of life. Poemen responded with wisdom which could and should be applied by a variety of people. He wanted to make sure those who listened to him did not end up becoming attached to some sort of ideology which leads to a spiritual dead-end.

Perhaps one of the most important pieces of advice Poemen gave was that, though we should be concerned about doing right and avoiding what is wrong, we should be flexible when we do so, that is, we should not be exceedingly scrupulous. Scrupulosity represents a misunderstanding of the spiritual life; it has us look at morality in a purely legalistic fashion. Christian spirituality must always transcend such legalism, as it must be open to the prompting of the transcendent Spirit, as St. Paul indicated:

Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:4-6 RSV).

Abba Poemen knew the truth of this; he knew those who are overly scrupulous, those who look for a strict code to follow, will never find peace. No one will ever be able to follow such rules to the letter as the letter never makes room for the diverse experiences and conditions people find themselves in. Thus, as he indicated to Abba Isaac, sometimes we must let go of our conceptions of righteousness go, for then we will transcend ourselves, allowing the Spirit to direct and help us find the peace we need instead of thinking we can create all the rules we need to acquire it for ourselves: “Abba Poemen said to Abba Isaac: ‘Let go a small part of your righteousness and in a few days you will find peace.’”[1]

So many Christians have turned Christianity into an extreme, legalistic ideology, a moralism which denies the transcendent spirituality which they need to attain true perfection. They will make rules, but no matter how many they make, they will find the need to make more. It will become a never-ending process, as no rule will ever be sufficient in and of itself.  And, the more rules which have been made, the more difficult it will be to follow them all. So, not only does such legalism create a never-ending search for rules, it makes the spiritual life more and more unbearable as it is impossible to live up to all the rules which have been made. Eventually, one trying to live their spiritual life in this fashion will have a breakdown, as they will become exhausted trying to do what cannot be done. What is needed is not rules, but grace, and there is no rule which, in and of itself, brings such grace to those who follow it. It is the Spirit who brings such grace, and the Spirit is not interested in the letter of the law.

Christ came to give us peace, and so, we should realize, when we find ourselves becoming further and further away from such peace by our rigid moralism, we are doing something wrong. It should clue us in that a spiritual life centered upon rules and rules is far from the spirituality Christ wanted us to have. When we do not find peace, when we do not have the grace we need, we either finally see the need to transcend such moralism, and so open ourselves up to the Spirit, or else, we will try to make more rules, hoping we will finally establish the one we need to acquire peace within. Some, to be sure, might realize, as they are far from such peace themselves, they cannot establish the rules they need to find it, and so they think the solution will lie in finding the right spiritual director, one who has such peace, and having them create such rules for them. They still do not understand the solution, as they still think it is all in the rules instead of the Spirit who transcends the letter of the law. Thus, if we find someone coming to us, hoping we will provide the rules we need, we should not accept that role; the best think we can do is represent the spiritual life to others, showing them the flexibility which is needed by the way we engage the Spirit ourselves:

A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘Some brothers live with me; do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The old man said to him, ‘No, just work first and foremost, and if they want to live like you, they will see to it themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves, Father who wants me to be in charge of them.’ The old man said to him, ‘No, be their example, not their legislator.’[2]

There is a big difference between being an example to others and being a legislator who creates rules others must follow. One who serves as an example for others does not suggest that everything they say and do should be the way others do things. They knew that they can only show an example of how things can be done. This is why it is important to have exemplars who sometimes act in completely opposite ways, and in doing so, show how various ways can be used to engage the Spirit and lead to the peace and grace which we want and need. We are given an example of this in the way Abba Poemen answered a question concerning silence:

A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘Is it better to speak or to be silent?’ The old man said to him, ‘The man who speaks for God’s sake does well; but he who is silent for God’s sake also does well.’[3]

Poemen understood that he could not provide a single one answer to that question. Each person had to find the answer for themselves, one which related to their own particular situation, and the way God was at work with them in their lives. Each person should determine, perhaps with a spiritual director, what is best for themselves and their own present circumstance in life (accepting that what is best for them might change over time). While this is true in regard the question of silence, it is also true in regards many other disciplines Christians might want to follow. We must embrace prudence and determine what is best for us in the particular moment. We must accept, no matter what discipline we follow, the discipline alone will not provide us what we need. We need the Spirit and its grace. We need God’s mercy and grace. Legalism does not know the Spirit, and so, its moralistic legal code will provide no lasting peace as, without the Spirit, and the grace the Spirit provides, we will never attain perfection. When we learn to let go, when we learn not to think there must be a rule for everything, a rule which, once we discerned it, we must follow without deviation, we free ourselves from ourselves and find ourselves ready to take the first big step in truly finding peace. We will find ourselves ready to let the peace of Christ, the peace which comes from outside ourselves, come in and dwell with us, providing us what we need, not only for such peace, but righteousness as well.

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 187 [Saying of Abba Poemen  #143].

[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 191 [Saying of Abba Poemen  #174].

[3] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 188 [Saying of Abba Poemen  #147].


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