Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Threefold Path of Ascent to God

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to our ecclesiastical calendar, every year on January 17 – this past Sunday most currently - we commemorate one of the truly extraordinary saints of the Church; and one whose impact on the Church’s historical and spiritual development can hardly be over-estimated. And that would be St. Anthony the Great (+356) who is universally proclaimed as the “Father of monasticism.”

St. Anthony withdrew from the world to seek the Kingdom of God with an intensity and focus that was humanly speaking, practically “impossible,” but as the Lord said, “with God all things are possible” (MATT. 19:26).  He was inspired toward this act of radical withdrawal when he heard the words of the Lord in church one Sunday: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (MATT. 19:21).  After many years of prayer, fasting and vigil in the desert — during which he had to battle countless demons — St. Anthony learned that whatever he “accomplished” in the ascetic life was made possible by the grace of God. His Life became one of the most widely-read and influential books of the Church in late antiquity, the reading of which was instrumental in the spiritual development of Blessed Augustine of Hippo (+430); and has maintained its powerful attraction to this day. Perhaps the fact that it was written by St. Athanasius the Great (+373) has a great deal to do with that.

Some of St. Anthony’s most memorable “sayings” have been recorded and thus preserved throughout the centuries, so that his ancient wisdom can guide us to this day, whether we are married, celibate or a monastic. In the Alphabetical Collection of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we hear his voice reaching to us from the 4th c. desert of Egypt with a timeless wisdom:

“This is the great work of a man: always to take blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.” (4)

If that produces a sense of discouragement or anxiety, St. Anthony further taught the “positive” side of this insight:

“Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He even added: “Without temptation no-one can be saved.” (5)

He also said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” (9)

The desert became the arena of the spiritual struggle of ascending toward God. In fact, there eventually emerged over time a “threefold path of ascent” that profoundly outlined the course of outward action and inner activity that would lead a human person toward God. This is usually attributed to Evagrios of Pontus, whose works survive under the name of Neilos the Solitary. He has been called the great “psychologist of the desert” based on his insights into the working of the spirit in fighting off temptation and drawing closer to God in prayer.

At this point, I would like to introduce the work of one of my excellent students from my recently-completed Fall semester at XU. She had to analyze the threefold path of ascent as handed down from Evagrios in its three aspects of 1) praktiki; 2) physiki; and 3) theologia. Her answers were extremely well-done, and reflected a sound assimilation of the ideas expressed, rather than a simple rote memorization. It is always encouraging to witness quality work at the end of the semester, and I would like to share that with you:

Praktiki: “Praktiki” is the first part of the “Threefold Path of Spiritual Ascent” prescribed by Evagrius of Pontus. It refers to the practice of virtues and the practical application of spirituality in one’s daily life. It involves a constant “warfare against the passions” in order to acquire virtues and purify the heart. This stage of one’s spiritual journey is often referred to as the “active life,” and must begin with repentance, culminating in a purification of the passions. This purification is made manifest and leads to what Evagrius calls “apatheia,” the “gateway to love.” “Apatheia” involves spiritual freedom; in such a state one no longer yields to temptation. 

Physiki: “Physiki” is the second stage of Evagrius’ threefold path. This is referred to as “natural contemplation.” It is important to note that this part of the path does not necessarily follow praktiki; it may occur simultaneously. “Physiki” involves a way of looking at the world that sees it as it truly is; as God made it to be. In this way, it is a way of seeing God through nature, or even seeing nature through God. In turn, one can come to better understand oneself and one’s essence as a human being through contemplating and understanding God’s uncreated energies and how he manifests them in nature. An understanding of the “logos” or “word” is essential to physiki, as it forms the inner essence of all created things.

Theologia: “Theologia” refers to the contemplation of God. Prayer is the primary way to practice such contemplation. The two main types of prayer, liturgical prayer and personal prayer, are both essential to deepening one’s understanding of God. In both types of prayer, one’s goal should be to achieve “hesychia,” (inner stillness) or undistracted prayer. Liturgical prayer is a communal experience in which people gather to pray in communion with one another, usually engaging in oral, or spoken prayer. Personal prayer involves private contemplation and meditation. There are many different ways to pray. One type of prayer that is especially popular in the Orthodox Church is monologic prayer, which involves focusing one’s prayer on a single word or phrase.

Well-done indeed!  This is an essential part of our Tradition that all Orthodox Christians need to be aware of.

But now comes the truly hard part: Doing our utmost to put such a profound teaching into the practice of our daily lives at least on a level that would lift us up ever so slightly toward God!

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