SPIRITUAL KNOWLEDGE: Part 1. Virtue.
The Fathers tell us that the cure for ignorance is spiritual knowledge. However, we must first clear up the Patristic concept of virtue before we can even approach spiritual knowledge.
St. Maximus says that “virtue may be defined as the conscious union of human weakness with divine strength.”1 This union requires us to make an “effort to transcend the weakness of human nature.”2 These rather vague remarks are brought into sharp focus by his comment that “the soul . . . acquires the virtues by keeping the commandments.”3 If this is so, then the commandments are not legalistic requirements. Neither are they a list of duties we must keep only because God told us to. Instead, they have a substantial and practical value to us. As St. Paisios the Athonite says, “by observing the commandments of God we cultivate virtue and acquire health of soul.”4
One of the interesting differences between Orthodoxy and the Western churches is their understanding of the commandments. At least in the English-speaking West, most people think the commandments are the Ten Commandments. However, when the Fathers talk about the commandments, they mean the commandments of Christ. For example, when St. Peter of Damascus writes about the commandments, he does not write about the Ten Commandments but the Seven Commandments—i.e., the Beatitudes.5 St. Macarius of Egypt takes a broader view: “the abode and resting-place of the Holy Spirit is humility, love, gentleness and the other holy commandments of Christ.”6
So how do we know which of these commandments to keep in the course of our daily lives? How do we know what God wants of us?
St. Theophan the Recluse replies that “we certainly know this from the commandments he has given us. Is someone seeking help? Help him. Has someone offended you? Forgive him. Have you offended somebody? Rush to ask forgiveness and make peace. Did somebody praise you? Don’t be proud. Did somebody scold you? Do not be angry. Is it time to pray? Pray. Is it time to work? Work. Etc. etc. etc.”7 It is clear from St. Theophan’s words that it is “the individual events with which each of us meets” which inform us of which commandments to keep.8
Another way of looking at the commandments is provided by St. Paisios. When a nun asked him how she could be saved, he replied decisively, “with love and humility.”9 They are, he adds, “the easiest means to salvation; they are what we will be judged for.”10 So not only are love and humility the only questions on the final exam, so to speak, but they are the easiest ones we could ask for. Every final should be so easy.
To sum up, any virtue is the union of divine strength with human weakness. If we read the New Testament closely and live our lives attentively, we will know which commandments to keep and thereby acquire the virtues proper for us. St. Paisius emphasizes love and humility; if we humbly keep the two great commandments, we will naturally want to glorify God and intercede for our fellow men.
Now we may answer the question of how spiritual knowledge is the cure for ignorance.
- The Philokalia, tr. G.E H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, vols. 1-4 (London: Faber & Faber, 1979-1995; reprint, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 3: 230.
- Ibid., p. 129.
- The Rev. Fr. Peter Chamberas, trans., Saint Paisios of Mount Athos: Spiritual Counsels (Souroti, Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Hesychasterion, 2006), vol. 5, Passions and Virtues, p. 157.
- Philokalia, 3: 93-100.
- Ibid., 346.
- St. Theophan the Recluse, The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, tran. Alexandra Dockham, 3rd ed. (Safford, Arizona: St. Paisios Serbian Orthodox Monastery, 2003), p. 74.
- Ibid., p. 75.
- Passions, p. 212.
- Ibid., p. 213.