The Philokalia is a wonderful treasure that you should read for ourselves. In our first blog on St Mark the Ascetics work on the traps of believing in the righteousness of works we pondered the reflections of Bradley Nassif, so now let us read this famous work for ourselves for more insights in living a godly life. You might think that a community of monks who do not marry, who withdraw from the world, who live a life of prayer would find it easy to lead a perfect and godly life, but perhaps their separation from the world makes it harder to live a godly life. Or perhaps because they ponder on the problem and confront the demons in all our souls that they are only much more aware of how elusive and difficult this quest can be.
Blog 1 of this series: http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/st-mark-the-ascetic-blog-1-no-righteousness-by-works/
St Mark the Ascetic warns us, “some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken.”(18)
It is always better to follow the commandments than not follow them, as acting kindly is a good habit to acquire, but those who expect rewards or recognition for living a godly life easily fall into other traps the deceiver places under their feet. St Mark the Ascetic teaches us, “he who does something good and expects a reward is serving not God but his own will.”(57)
We all know the certainty of death and the uncertainty of life, but with modern medicine we forget so easily that life can be snatched so randomly, so suddenly from any of us at any time, anywhere, no matter how godly a life we lead. If we expect rewards for living a godly life, then we may find anger at God welling up in our souls for not living up to His end of our deal. God promises strength for us to endure our sufferings, God grants us the grace that allows us the kindness that makes life meaningful, but does God promise protection from all of life’s sufferings and trial? Not so much.
Suffering can strengthen our character. As St Mark the Ascetic teaches us, “he who has come to know the truth does not oppose the afflictions that befall him, for he knows they lead him to the fear of God.(150) Trials come upon us because of our former sins, bringing what is appropriate to each offense.”(154)
How can we know that our sufferings are brought upon us by our former sins? Sometimes our sufferings come from a lack of trust from others who were hurt many years ago, or whose parents whose hurts they inherited, which is another reason to readily forgive our neighbor. St Mark the Ascetic teaches us, “he who willingly accepts chastening by affliction is not dominated by evil thoughts against his will; whereas he who does not accept affliction is taken prisoner by evil thoughts, even though he resists them.”(208)
Does grace make us puppets? St Mark the Ascetic teaches us, “grace has been given mystically to those who have been baptized into Christ; and it becomes active within them to the extent that they actively observe the commandments. Grace never ceases to help us secretly; but to do good, as far as lies in our power, depends on us.”(61)
St Mark the Ascetic teaches us, “when we fulfill the commandments in our outward actions, we receive from the Lord what is appropriate; but any real benefit we gain depends on our inward intention.”(15) When we live a godly life, the immediate reward is the living of a godly life. Salvation is promised in the next life for living a godly life, as St Mark the Ascetic teaches us, “fear of hell and love for God’s kingdom enable us patiently to accept affliction; and this they do, not by themselves, but through Him who knows our thoughts.”(141)
However, salvation can also be attained in this life when we are transformed into godly people, adopted sons of our Father in Heaven. Luke reminds us, “once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ’The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’”
St Mark continues, “Christ is Master by virtue of His own essence and Master by virtue of his incarnate life. For He creates man from nothing, and through His own Blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace.(21) When Scripture says ‘He will reward every man according to his works’, do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself; and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer.”(22)
There is another interesting teaching by St Mark the Ascetic, “if we want to do something but cannot, then before God, who knows our hearts, it is as if we have done it. This is true whether the intended action is good or bad.”(16) Motives matter. Motives are all that matter.
This is a comforting teaching to those in divorce support groups. They hear how they need to forgive and reconcile, but you find it difficult to forgive someone close to you whom you thought loved and cared for you who cheats and turns on you and tries to destroy your life. As a facilitator you ask if the divorce process is till ongoing, and if so, tell them not be too hard on themselves, it is impossible to forgive while the battle is being waged. Forgiveness is a decision, as is love, but for grievous and egregious sins forgiveness is also a process. Perhaps you can recast the verse, “I believe, help my unbelief!” as, “I forgive, help me to forgive!” In these situations, reconciliation is both a decision and a process, often it is being less angry and kinder to them today than yesterday.
Striving to forgive and reconcile even when it is difficult or even impossible makes us better people, brings salvation slowly into our soul. Is salvation more self-discipline than reward? St Mark the Ascetic teaches us, “even though knowledge is true, it is still not firmly established if unaccompanied by works. For everything is established by being put into practice.”(12)
We should not be angry with God when those close to us try to destroy our lives. St Mark the Ascetic teaches us, “It is a great virtue to accept patiently whatever comes and, as the Lord enjoins, to love a neighbor who hates you.(47) The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.”(48)
“Rain cannot fall without a cloud, and we cannot please God without a good conscience.”(71) We must always strive to love and forgive and be reconciled with our neighbor, especially when we are alone, we will always have to live with ourselves.
PRAYER IN THE LIFE OF THE CHRISTIAN
St Mark the Ascetic is known for his early writings on prayer. “There is no perfect prayer unless the intellect invokes God; and when our thought cries aloud without distraction, the Lord will listen.”(33) “Prayer is called a virtue, but in reality it is the mother of virtues: for it gives birth to them through union with Christ.(35) Whatever we do without prayer and without hope in God turns out afterwards to be harmful and defective.”(36)
Prayer, like living a godly life and following the commandments, is a discipline.. Love of God, through prayer, should lead us to love for our neighbor, through our actions. St Mark the Ascetic teaches us about praying:
“Pray persistently about everything, and then you will never do anything without God’s help.(94)
“Nothing is stronger than prayer in action, nothing more effective in winning God’s favor.”(95)
“Prayer comprises the complete fulfilment of the commandments; for there is nothing higher than Love for God.”(96)
“Undistracted prayer is a sign for Love for God; but careless or distracted prayer is a sign of love for pleasure.”(97) The same could be said for church services.
“Escape from temptation through patience and prayer. If you oppose temptation without these, it only attacks you more strongly.”(106)
St Mark the Ascetic sums up the dangers of not living an examined life. “He who does not understand God’s judgements walks on a ridge like a knife-edge and is easily unbalanced by every puff of wind. When praised, he exalts; when criticized, he feels bitter. When he feasts, he makes a pig of himself; and when he suffers hardship, he moans and groans. When he understands, he shows off; and when he does not understand, he pretends like he does.” Like a consultant. “When rich, he is boastful; and when in poverty, he plays the hypocrite. Gorged, he grows brazen; and when he fasts, he becomes arrogant. He quarrels with those who reprove him; and those who forgive him he regards as fools.”(193)
We will conclude this reflection with a comforting thought of St Mark the Ascetic, “fire cannot last long in water, nor can a shameful thought in a heart that Loves God. For every man who Loves God suffers gladly, and voluntary suffering is by nature the enemy of sensual pleasure.”(84)
 St Mark the Ascetic, “On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works: 226 Texts,” In the Philokalia, The Complete Text, compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Vol. 1, translated and edited by GEH Palmer, Phillip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), pp. 125-146.