Abba Amoun of Nitria came to see Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Since my rule is stricter than yours how is it that your name is better known amongst men than mine is?’ Abba Anthony answered, ‘It is because I love God more than you.’
Legalists create rules for themselves and others, hoping by the establishment and following of such rules, people will be impressed. This attitude is wrong, and leads to all kinds of disappointment. When people are not impressed, the response tends to be, “I’ve not done enough, I have to do more.” While discipline is good, it is not an end in itself. It is not a virtue, but a means to virtue. Our moral disposition must not be based upon lists which dictate what we can and cannot do, but rather, it must be based upon the principle of love. St. Anthony took some time before he understood this, but once he did, the transformation could be seen by others, and they began to follow him, not because they were impressed with his asceticism (though they were), but because they wanted to attain the happiness and joy he had found in God. His discipline became a tool for him to understand himself; once he had come to truly know who he was in God, he was able to understand God’s love for him and respond in kind with a great loving devotion to God. He was to understood and teach that the true path of holiness is the path established by love.
Jesus and Paul both show us the value and limits of a legalistic understanding of morality.The law is a tool to help shape us. However, if we come to it with the wrong intention, it becomes a stumbling block. “Woe to you lawyers also! for you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers: (Luke 11:46). Legalism, seeking to bind people by the strictest understanding of the rules, hinders people instead of lifting them up. Legalists try to find the most extreme representation of the law, the most extreme interpretation, and demand it of others. They like making derivative rules, claiming they are also necessary if one wants to lead a moral life. The more rules one makes, the more they can also interconnect and lead to the development of new rules. If we wish to do so, we can keep on making more and more rules, figuring out new ways to interpret and add to the rules we have already made. Nonetheless, if all we do is create rules, how can we live and be the people of God that we are meant to be? And, if we do this, do we really understand what the moral law is all about? What exactly is its essence? Love. “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets’” (Matthew 22:37-40). The essence of all moral law is love, love either for God or for what God has created. The law helps point out what such law entails. If we look at it as a matter of love, we fill free. If we look at it merely as rules to be slavishly enforced, we feel bound and trapped.
Paul affirms that grace frees us from legalism; it leads us to experience the love of God, to accept it, and to be transformed in it, so that we end up truly free. Of course, such freedom is to be properly understood: if we follow the path of love, love will do that which builds others up, and one will willingly abstain from that which will lead them to stumble:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. (But if some one says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then out of consideration for the man who informed you, and for conscience’ sake — I mean his conscience, not yours — do not eat it.) For why should my liberty be determined by another man’s scruples? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1Corinthians 10:23 -31)
Asceticism is not meant to be based upon rules. It is rather the pursuit of self-understanding, leading one to remove all habits and ways of thought which hinder our self-understanding. The more we understand ourselves, the better our relationship with God can be. We do not have to be a monk to pursue God in this way, though a monastic life has the advantage that we can pursue God in this way without worldly affairs getting in the way of our spiritual quest. Nonetheless, those of us who live in the world can encounter and find God: if we are not meant to be ascetics, we are still called to find and love God, to find and love God wherever we are called to be. In this way, Christianity does not require us all to become ascetics. St. Anthony understood this and made sure his followers did by explaining how he can to know of a doctor in Alexandria who was his spiritual equal. For those who come to love God with all their heart, all things they do will be influenced by that love, so that all they do will be great. St. Augustine’s saying that we are to love God and then do as we will is exactly the spiritual message we need to learn. But it must not be based upon a false perception of love, a fake love for God. Our love for God must be an active love, a love which motivates and influences our will. It must not be a mere thought, but rather, what moves us to act. “Let all that you do be done in love” (1Corinthians 16:14). Strict rules do not bring us greatness. Though there is a time and place for them, at other situations, they can lead to resentment, anger, and despair. These rules rarely generate love. And it is love which we need. With great love comes the holiness which the best of such rules claim to bring; without it, the rules become a stumbling block, for ourselves and for others. With great love, one becomes an example for all.