Sunday, May 13, 2012

A I Osipov: The Fundamentals Of Orthodox Life In St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)

The Basics of Spiritual Life, Based on the Writings of St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)

Patristic teachings have always corresponded to the level of those to whom they are directed. The Fathers of the Church never wrote “just for the sake of it” or “for science.” Many of their counsels, directed at ascetics of high contemplative life and even to so-called beginners, no longer even remotely correspond to the spiritual strength of the modern Christian. Furthermore, the variety, ambiguity, and at times even contradictoriness of these counsels that naturally occur due to the varying spiritual levels of those who seek them can disorient the inexperienced. It is very difficult to avoid these dangers when studying the Holy Fathers without knowing at least the more important principles of spiritual life. On the other hand, a correct spiritual life is unthinkable without patristic guidance. Before this seemingly insurmountable impasse, we can see the full significance of the spiritual inheritance of those fathers, most of whom are closer to us in time, who “restated” this earlier patristic experience of spiritual life in a language more accessible to a modern man little acquainted with this life, who usually has neither a capable guide nor sufficient strength.

The works of Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov are among the best of these “restatements,” which provide an impeccably reliable “key” to understanding the teachings of great laborers in the science of sciences—the ascetics.

What is the Meaning of Faith in Christ?

Here is what Saint Ignatius writes about this:

The beginning of conversion to Christ consists in coming to know one’s own sinfulness and fallenness. Through this view of himself, a person recognizes his need for a Redeemer, and approaches Christ through humility, faith, and repentance (4:277). He who does not recognize his sinfulness, fallenness, and peril cannot accept Christ or believe in Christ; he cannot be a Christian. Of what need is Christ to the person who himself is wise and virtuous, who is pleased with himself, and considers himself worthy of all earthly and heavenly rewards? (4:378).

Within these words the thought involuntarily draws attention to itself that the awareness of one’s own sinfulness and the repentance proceeding from it are the first conditions for receiving Christ—that is, the belief that Christ came, suffered, and was resurrected is the beginning of conversion to Christ, for the devils also believe, and tremble (Jas 2:19), and from the knowledge of one’s sinfulness comes true faith in Him.

The holy hierarch’s thought shows the first and main position of spiritual life, which so often slips away from the attention of the faithful and shows the true depth of its Orthodox understanding. The Christian, as it happens, is not at all the one who believes according to tradition or who is convinced of the existence of God through some form of evidence, and, of course, the Christian is not at all one who goes to Church and feels that he is “higher than all sinners, atheists, and non-Christians.” No, the Christian is the one who see his own spiritual and moral impurity, his own sinfulness, sees that he is perishing, suffers over this, and therefore he is inwardly free to receive the Savior and true faith in Christ. This is why, for example, Saint Justin the Philosopher wrote, “He is the Logos in Whom the whole human race participates. Those who live according to the Logos are Christians in essence, although they consider themselves to be godless: such were Socrates and Heraclites, and others among the Hellenes.… In the same way those who lived before us in opposition to the Logos were dishonorable, antagonistic to Christ … while those who lived and still live according to Him are Christians in essence.”[1] This is why so many pagan peoples so readily accepted Christianity.

On the contrary, whoever sees himself as righteous and wise, who sees his own good deeds, cannot be a Christian and is not one, no matter where he stands in the administrative and hierarchical structure of the Church. Saint Ignatius cites the eloquent fact from the Savior’s earthly life that He was received with tearful repentance by simple Jews who admitted their sins, but was hatefully rejected and condemned to a terrible death by the “intelligent,” “virtuous,” and respectable Jewish elite—the high priests, Pharisees (zealous fulfillers of Church customs, rules, etc.), and scribes (theologians).

They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick (Mt 9:12), says the Lord. Only those who see the sickness of their soul and know that it cannot be cured through their own efforts come to the path of healing and salvation, because they are able to turn to the true Doctor Who suffered for them—Christ. Outside of this state, which is called “knowing oneself” by the Fathers, normal spiritual life is impossible. “The entire edifice of salvation is built upon the knowledge and awareness of our infirmity,” writes Saint Ignatius (1:532). He repeatedly cites the remarkable words of Saint Peter of Damascus: “The beginning of the soul’s enlightenment and mark of its health is when the mind begins to see its own sins, numbering as the sands of the sea” (2:410).

Therefore, Saint Ignatius exclaims over and over,

Humility and the repentance which comes from it are the only conditions under which Christ is received! Humility and repentance are the only price by which the knowledge of Christ is purchased! Humility and repentance make up the only moral condition from which one can approach Christ, to be taken in by Him! Humility and repentance are the only sacrifice which requites, and which God accepts from fallen man (cf. Ps 50:18–19). The Lord rejects those who are infected with pride, with a mistaken opinion of themselves, who consider repentance to be superfluous for them, who exclude themselves from the list of sinners. They cannot be Christians (4:182–183).

Know Yourself

How does a person obtain this saving knowledge of himself, his “oldness,” a knowledge which opens to him the full, infinite significance of Christ’s Sacrifice? Here is how Saint Ignatius answers this question.

I do not see my sin because I still labor for sin. Whoever delights in sin and allows himself to taste of it, even if only in his thoughts and sympathy of heart, cannot see his own sin. He can only see his own sin who renounces all friendship with sin; who has gone out to the gates of his house to guard them with bared sword—the word of God; who with this sword deflects and cuts off sin, in whatever form it might approach. God will grant a great gift to those who perform this great task of establishing enmity with sin; who violently tear mind, heart, and body away from it. This gift is the vision of one’s own sins (2:122).

In another place he gives the following practical advice: “If one refuses to judge his neighbors, his thoughts naturally begin to see his own sins and weaknesses which he did not see while he was occupied with the judgment of his neighbors” (5:351). Saint Ignatius expresses his main thought on the conditions for self-knowledge by the following remarkable words of Saint Symeon the New Theologian: “Painstaking fulfillment of Christ’s commandments teaches man about his infirmity” (4:9); that is, it reveals to him the sad picture of what really resides in his soul and what actually happens there.

The question of how to obtain the vision of one’s sins, or the knowledge of one’s self, one’s old man, is at the center of spiritual life. Saint Ignatius beautifully showed its logic: only he who sees himself as one perishing has need of a Savior; on the contrary, the “healthy” (cf. Mt 9:12) have no need of Christ. Therefore, if one wants to believe in Christ in an Orthodox way, this vision becomes the main purpose of his ascetic labor, and at the same time, the main criteria for its authenticity.

From: Alexei I. Osipov, The Search for Truth on the Path of Reason (Sretensky Monastery, Pokrov Press, 2009) 238-240.

Alexei Ilyich Osipov

Translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees)

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