April 5, 2023

Faith and Works: An Orthodox Philokalic Perspective (5 of 6)

 ...continued from part four.

5. Hesychasm and the Life of the New Testament

This naturally leads us to the following thoughts. The fulfillment of the old Law in the new life of grace by the Holy Spirit, in the Church of the Incarnate Word, had been prophetically announced by the Prophets of ancient Israel. Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of the eschatological era, during which the divine will shall be written no longer on stone tablets but by the Spirit in the renewed hearts of flesh of the members of the people of God, the people of the New Testament (Jer. 38:31-35; Ez. 36:24-27 and 18:31).

This is exactly the truth that the Philokalic Fathers emphasize from experience. Symeon the New Theologian identifies the difference between the New Testament and the Old Testament in that in the Church of the New Testament grace does not "speak" to believers, so they do not learn what is good through letters and inscriptions, but in their hearts from the Holy Spirit are "secretly initiated in the divine by the light of the word and the word of light." And here we could speak of a Philokalic interpretation of the Pauline testimony of 2 Cor. 3:18: "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord."

Unraveling the "cord of three strands" of the noetic state, Gregory of Sinai (Philokalia IV, 34) will answer similarly: "... thus the nous, when it is purified and returns to its former value, sees God and receives the divine meanings from Him. And instead of a book, he has the Spirit, instead of a reed, the intellect and the tongue... immersing the intellect in fire, and making it a light, He writes the words in the Spirit in the pure hearts of the listeners."

Isaac the Syrian (Ascetic Works) living within the mystery of Pentecost and knowing beyond knowledge and understanding the uncreated divine maxims and wills can confirm the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy in the life of the true Israel of the New Testament in Christ:

"To the extent that a person accepts the Paraclete, he is bound to the divine Scriptures... when the power of the Spirit rests on the psychic power it is energized in him, then instead of the law of the Scriptures, the commandments of the Spirit take root in the heart. And then he secretly learns from the Spirit, and does not depend on the help of sensible matter."

Saint Sophrony of Essex will say the same again in simpler wording:

"Through the coming to us of the Light of Christ, His few commandments, engraved on the heart and mind, abolish all other laws, including the Mosaic one...."

The ascetic struggle, therefore, has, in addition to a negative one, an extremely positive dimension. Saint Maximus the Confessor emphasizes this positive side, without deviating from the teaching of Venerable Mark. The "eyes of faith" are the observance of the divine commandments, i.e. the divine statutes, which are understood as divine light (cf. "for your statutes are a light upon the earth"):

"When by neglecting the commandments a person blinds the eyes of faith that are within him, then he is certainly doomed, for he no longer has God watching over him. For if Scripture calls the energies of the Spirit the 'eyes of the Lord' (Deut. 11:12), the person who does not open those eyes by fulfilling the commandments does not have God watching over him. God watches us only when through fulfilling the commandments we are illumined by the energies of the Spirit, for He has no other eyes by which He looks down on those who dwell on earth" (Philok. II 135; cf. 2 Peter 1:9).

In order to understand the meaning of these words of Saint Maximus, we need to remember that the "commandments of God" are understood as divine wills or otherwise uncreated divine energies, which for our weakness, are given to us in a linguistic formulation accessible to us. Similarly, the observance of the divine commandments, as from the reason just mentioned above, cannot be understood in an Orthodox manner except as a secret communion with God.

Among many, I single out and recall the excellent position of Saint Maximus, according to which God himself is hidden in every commandment, so by observing them we come into communion with God: "The Word of God the Father secretly exists in each of the situated commandments... The one who accepts a divine command and does it, receives the Word of God in his heart."

The same conception is formulated by Saint Isaac the Syrian in his following quote: "The commandments of God are greater than all the treasures of the world. And the one who dwells among them finds God."

Finally, I again invoke the testimony of Saint Sophrony of Essex, who in his work On Prayer (158) writes: "The dazzling light of divinity is reflected on our level in the form of commands: "love your enemies, ... be perfect, as your Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:44).

In another wording: "In the commandments the life of God Himself is revealed." The commands are offered to us in the form of sentences contained in the sacred texts of our faith about our weakness. Nonetheless, they are a manifestation of God's uncreated will. To the saints, the transmission of the divine will takes place without verbal forms and meanings in the charismatic state of the vision in God. (Cf. Zech. 1:6: "Yet surely My words and My statutes, Which I commanded My servants the prophets..."; John 6:63: "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life"; Ecclesiastes 12:13: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this mans all").

God commands the "law" of salvation in the Spirit. This means: a) that the commandments are a mystagogic revelation of the divine being, but also a manifestation of the perfect man (G. Mantzarides); b) that the acceptance and observance of the divine commandments is a charismatic event, which consumes our freedom; c) the formation of virtues through the commandments is a secret "place" of communion with God.

In this sense, faith is a divine gift (and not a meritorious work). Good works as an expression of faith likewise have a charismatic character, without, however, abolishing human free will. Maximus, in turn, illuminates this theonomic understanding of the secret unity of faith and works as follows:

"Blessed is he who knows in truth that we are but tools in God's hands; that it is God who effects within us all ascetic practice and contemplation, virtue and spiritual knowledge, victory and wisdom, goodness and truth; and that to all this we contribute nothing at all except a disposition that desires what is good" (Philokalia II 133).

The same truth will be expressed by the same Saint in different, but identical terms (Maximus likes to change terms), when he talks about the unity of theoria (faith) and praxis (asceticism) as the mystery of salvation. The "theoria" is experienced as a "mystagogical act" (hence asceticism has a sacramental character!), the "praxis" is an "active theoria" (justifying faith is not dead, but alive, justifying and saving).


Become a Patreon or Paypal Supporter:

Recurring Gifts

Contact Form


Email *

Message *