This selection by Mark the Monk really seems to pull together the themes that we have been engaging thus far. He mentions the intellect, stillness, the practice of the virtues, and pure motive of the heart. He does, at the same time, caution us against the belief that these works merit salvation, “…the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants.”
A proper orientation towards the practice of spiritual disciplines is important, and Mark’s instruction was, for me, particularly valuable. I recently had a conversation with a professor whose opinion I hold in high esteem. His attitude towards legalism of any kind is quite negative, preferring instead (and correctly I believe) to place Christ’s work on our behalf at the fore. I began to suspect that he understood these practices and readings to which we have submitted to be some sort of ‘new law.’ He did not know the specifics of our engagement, but held only a rough perception of what he felt we were trying to accomplish. Mark the Monk’s work surprised him, and I feel that the greater clarification Mark offers regarding our purpose is indeed helpful.
I would say that before reading Mark I found the disciplines with which we have been occupied (prayer, the reading of the Scriptures and the Philokalia, attention to the inner life of the soul) to be very helpful. They had indeed increased my love of Jesus Christ and his Church, drawn me closer to God and heightened my awareness of his will for my life. I would have admitted these things individually, but Mark points out that these things are not done in order to warrant God’s love…that has been freely given as grace. Instead, these things are given to us (spiritual disciplines) in order that we might have a greater knowledge and love of God. They do not produce the love that God offers us, they do not even increase it, but they do make us more aware of it and more aware of the One who offers it to us.
And yet we do not do these things only as a way to grow to a greater knowledge of God. Indeed, Christ called us to these very things when we became followers of him. As Mark puts it, “He who honours the Lord does what the Lord bids.” It is amazing to me that doing what the Lord bids is not only a proper response to the grace that he has given us, but it also leads us to a greater love of him, an even greater desire to follow him more fully. Obedience perpetuates love which brings greater obedience. This, I would think, is a fairly good system that God has provided!
A proper understanding of my purpose, or at least an understanding that omits a belief in an adherence to certain legalistic practices to earn God’s favor, also provides me with a certain freedom. As I am sure we have all become aware, we do not accomplish any of these areas perfectly, indeed, it is sometimes difficult to get through a single day making sure that I have said my prayers and read my Scriptures at the appropriate times. Understanding that this does not prevent me from experiencing God’s love frees me to engage these disciplines not out of fear, but out of love. I begin to look forward to these times of being with God. I think this is what Mark is getting at towards the very end of this work. As we seek to practice discrimination and repentance in the pursuit of purity and holiness, and as we seek purity and holiness in order that we might behold the inner-dwelling place of Christ within us, let us also persevere with those experienced elders who have gone before us and who, as Mark acknowledges, have often lost their way or been let down by a lack of attention. “Let us constantly imitate them in this, until we too, have acquired this practice irremovably.” For we do this in response to the love that God has given us through Jesus Christ and in the power of his Holy Spirit. We do this out of a desire to love him more fully, follow him more closely, and know him more intimately. We do this in order that we might experience him bursting forth in our lives, enabling us to love others with the love that he has given us, in order that the whole world might experience the beauty of life with this One who has given us everything, even Himself.