Introduction on Living Spiritually

In western societies, the topics "repentance" and "asceticism" are sometimes associated with grim practices of bodily mortification. While the history of this perspective is interesting, it is also historically anomolous. Orthodox Christianity and early Christian history present asceticism and repentance in terms of love and peace.

In the contemporary period, there is some recognition of this divergence in western religion, with an effort made to downplay some of the gloomier more morose and morbid fascinations. Products of romantic religious piety, there is now a tendency to emphasize the experiencing happiness, cultural relevance, social work, and to express religious values in a contemporary ideom. Unfortunately, this alternative approach does not standing against hedonistic culture, making it more contrary to Orthodox Christian witness than before.

Perhaps this dialectic is a function of the long-standing western view that Christ's death was a substitutionary undertaking to assuage the righteous wrath of God's judgment.

The Orthodox Christian approach to repentance and asceticism is framed in terms of sober-minded rationality in facing death. As such, asceticism and repentance are seen in a positive light, as the path to being alive Christ.

In the Orthodox view, asceticism precedes repentance that in turn leads to deeper asceticism. Asceticism is the cutting-off of passionate behaviors and thoughts that results in greater rationality. Passions are a state of spiritual passivity allowing impulses of every sort and origin - bodily desires, mental fantasies, and demonic suggestion - to determine personal behavior and thoughts thus making the soul drunk and irrational. By actively exercising free will to struggle against passive impulsiveness, the soul becomes more sensitive to the fact and will of God, and the needs of others. Sensitivity in the soul makings the mind available for instruction in ways in which it should walk, to learning the precepts and ordinances of God. The fruit of a clearer awareness of the nature of godly living is a desire for presence of God, which is the beginning of repentance. Actual repentance is the struggle to live an unhypocritical godly life. To the extent such a life is lived, the soul has peace and rest in the presence of God, and seeks to cut-off that which is not of God.

Of course, ascetical acts are little deaths: deaths to the world of narrow materiality, of those things that end at death. Facing death in any form is terrifying as all life rebels against it, against the annihilation of the will to be. Courage is required to face death. The struggle to acquire courage takes place in desperate prayer: O Lord, help me, a sinner. The consequences of living without asceticism are terrifying: the soul, overwhelmed by passionate urgings, slowly loses the ability to act according its natural will. Overwhelmed by grief at its own death, the experience of life is torture, the lost soul, in its isolation does not know how to cry out, and can perish, a true human calamity, the condition of much of the contemporary world is indistinguishable from suicide: O Lord, save.

For the Orthodox Christian, the hope for ascetical courage comes from the glorious, which is to say dogmatic, fact, the existential certainty, that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death and upon those in the tombs is bestowing life. Modern atheistic arguments rooted in biology or physics fail to grasp that it is not so much, whether this theory or that is correct, as much as it is irrelevant to individual life and spiritual reflection, in its inevitable circularity, does not defeat the witness of life, which, mathematically, it is unable to define in non-trivial ways.

The western notion, that Christ took up the Cross to satisfy the Father, is abhorrent. The Father is the source of all Love. Death is the place in which the Evil One held humanity, all Adam, when he took him prisoner when Adam chose separation from the presence of God, and become irrational. By choosing isolation from the One, Adam rendered the fundamental ratios of the universe chaotic.

The advent of Death is not the result of God's judgment or power. Adam was not cast into the abyss, as the legion of demons cast out of the swine. Rather, humans, who were nearly invisible to demons, who are incapable of looking at spiritual light directly and require that it be reflected off the distorting material image, just as human beings do not see light, but the objects that are illuminated by it.

Christ, for Orthodox Christians, took up the Cross against Death as a weapon of peace and a trophy invincible, to rescue humanity from the prison of Death and irrational chaos. To perform this unmercenary act of charity, He entered the totality of human experience, taking human flesh, substance, for himself through the incomprehensible pregnancy a seedless conception. Ultimately, His human flesh was crucified and entered the state of death, not as victim but destroyer; Death is unable to contain anything that is alive: As God, Christ is Life.

The missionary purpose of God was to healing the human state, to restore the cosmological dimension to human existence. The profound depths of the Crucifixion life is not absent. Accessing it is the work asceticism and repentance.

Canon of Holy and Great Friday

Ode Six

O Word, thou wast slain but not separated from the flesh thou didst share with us. For though thy temple was destroyed at the time of thy Passion, the Person of thy Godhead and of thy flesh remains but One: in both thou art one Son, the Word of God, both God and Man.

The sin of Adam caused the death of man, but not the death of God, for though the earthly essence of thy flesh suffered, thy Godhead remained without suffering. Thou hast transformed that which was corruptible to incorruption, and revealed the fountain of life by thy Resurrection.

Hades rules over our mortal race, but not forever. Laid in the tomb, O Mighty One, with thy life-giving hand thou hast destroyed the bars of death. As the first born who rose from the dead, thou hast proclaimed true redemption, O Savior, to those who throughout the ages slept in the tombs.

Theotokion in the Second Tone

Lauds for Saturdays

Most blessed art Thou, O Virgin Theotokos, for through Him Who became incarnate of thee is hades led captive, Adam recalled, the curse annnuled, Eve set free, death slain, and we are given life. Wherefore, we cry aloud in praise: Blessed is Christ God Who hast been so pleased, glory to Theee.