Author Topic: Ecclesiology and Asceticism in Saint Justin Popovich  (Read 2000 times)

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Offline Asteriktos

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Ecclesiology and Asceticism in Saint Justin Popovich
« on: July 04, 2003, 05:24:43 PM »
While I've been trying to distance myself from most discussion and intellectual actions (e.g., writing) over the past little while, I've increased my thinking/study of other areas. One of them has been asceticism and the virtues, and what part they play in our lives as Orthodox Christians. And, since I tend to learn more when I write (it forces me to think about the whole big picture and how each small part fits into it), I found myself writing. And now, I am posting it here so that I can get some critical feedback on it. I'm not posting it here with the same mindset that I might once have posted it with (namely, to perhaps "share what I know," and maybe even teach someone)... rather, I'm just trying to get a handle on whether I've got things right here. I'd post it here as an anonymously written text using an alias except that I've been asked (here to! :) ) not to use my alias on here anymore  So, anyway, please share your comments (publically or privately)!  

The Place of Asceticism and the Virtues in the Ecclesiology of Saint Justin Popovich
Reflections on the Essay The Inward Mission of Our Church

One of the oft-neglected aspects of ecclesiology--in some circles at least--is the place of asceticism and the virtues. Orthodox Christian ecclesiology is always christocentric at it's core, but it is also always directly relevant to human beings. Ecclesiology can never be merely an abstract or academic repeating of beliefs: it is always relevant and it is always important to each and every Christian person, from the university professor to the simple, uneducated child. Saint Justin Popovich, so filled with divine virtues himself, saw this very clearly, and expresses this truth vibrantly in his writings. For Saint Justin, there is no divorce between action and theory, between doing and belief: there is no compartmentalization, where asceticism gets filed in one place, and talking about the Church gets placed somewhere else. For Saint Justin, participating in the virtures made you a part of the Church, and being a part of the Church made you a participator in the virtues: asceticism, the virtues, and the church were, of necessity, interpenetrating. Of the writings of Saint Justin that have been published in English, this interpenetration is perhaps most explicitly stated in his essay The Inward Mission of Our Church.[1] It is on this essay, therefore, that we will focus on as we delve into this little explored subject.

Saint Justin begins this essay describing the fear that some people have regarding what Christ--and therefore his Church--offers to those who seek: namely, eternity, infinity, and and immortality. [2] Much might be said about why exactly man fears these things, but that is a subject for another time. The point Saint Justin is trying to make is that "at the very core of his sense of self, feel himself immortal" to be truly immortal. [3] This isn't meant in a humanistic sense, of course (as the rest of this text shows), but as an assured response to divine grace, after a (life) long period of struggle and virtue. And all credit, in the end, must be given solely to the God-man Christ, for only Christ could have "bridged that chasm between time and eternity and restored relations" between God and man. [4] Indeed, all good things come from God, [5] and so one must be "organically made one with Christ" and "one with his body, the Church" to really feel immortal and "know himself in truth to be eternal". [6]

After Christ came and made this possible, though, he designated the Church (ie. the Orthodox Church) to be "the one and only passage and transition from time to eternity," [7] since the Church is His body, and he acts through it to bring about the salvation of human beings. For Saint Justin, to speak of the Church is to speak of a great mystery (cf Eph. 5:32), for Christ is truly the head of the Church, and is therefore organically, ontologically, linked with those who are in the "body of Christ". It is now through the Church that people can become christocentric beings: having Christ-knowledge instead of just self-knowledge, and serving the will of Christ rather than their own will. [8]

Saint Justin says that "the means and methods of this all-human God-human union... have been provided by the Church, through the Holy sacraments and in her God-human works (ascetic exertions, virtues." [9] And so, while the sacraments are extremely important, so to are the virtues important, and Saint Justin explicitly says that the "ascetic exertions" have been "provided by the Church". Saint Justin goes on: " ascetically exerting the God-human virtues: faith, prayer, fasting, love, meekness, thorough compassion and giving alms, a man consolidates himself in this union and preserves himself in its sanctity, personally experiencing Christ both as the unity of his own personality and as the essence of his union with other members of the body of Christ, the Church." [10]

The importance of this last quote to the subject being discussed cannot be overemphasised; the quote essentially summarizes most of what we are discussing here. First Saint Justin mentions that not only fasting and giving alms, but faith itself is a God-human virtue (ie. a virtue of divine origin) which is part of the action and asceticism that we must participate in. Second, Saint Justin tells us that these ascetic exertions, even though they come from God, simultaneously lead us to God and keep us in His grace. God's grace, then, must be sought after and attained through much toil on our own part, even if we must also, paradoxically, say at the same time that God alone is responsible and the source of all goodness. Third, Saint Justin tells us that asceticism and the virtues are both a personal happening between God and man, and yet also are an aspect of the union between a human being and the body of Christ. The working out of our salvation is, in the end, our own responsibility, but our efforts effect the entire body of Christ. [11]

Saint Justin explains that all must make an effort to attain the virtues, but that it is the Church's mission to help this happen: so that "in the soul of our people" there is "planted and cultivated a sense and awareness that every member of the Orthodox Church is a Catholic Person, a person who is for ever and ever, and is God-human; that each person is Christ's, and is therefore a brother to every human being, a ministering servant to all men and all created things." [12] The Church if fully equipped to do this since it is nothing but a continuation of the incarnation of Christ: and the Church is the body of Christ, with Christ Himself as its head. All the ascetic virtues and exertions, then, are divinely given: salvation is not merited of achieved through works, but rather, through God's grace working through us and in cooperation with us we are healed and able to experience God's grace more fully. [13] For Saint Justin, the virtues and ascetic exertions are "tools" that bring us to salvation, but they can never be thought of as merely "tools" that can be used or not used according to the whims of the individual: the virtues are "ethical dogmas," and absolutely necessary for one to be saved. [14] This is one of the important things that sets apart Orthodoxy from all other philosophies and religions and Christian groups: Orthodoxy alone has the God-man given virtues, and Orthodoxy alone provides the context in which one can experience the divine-human synergy that leads to salvation. [15]

Saint Justin lists five necessary ascetic virtues in the essay being examined, the first and most important one being faith. [16] Faith is not merely a belief or conviction, though, and it is not simply a "motivator of works". Some fall into the former error, making faith into a purely intellectual or academic thing; others fall into the latter error, saying that faith without works is dead, but nonetheless also treating faith itself as something intellectual or academic. For Orthodoxy faith is an ascetic virtue, an "exertion," and so Saint Justin speaks of an "effort of faith". The best illustration of this is perhaps seen in the biblical testimony concerning Saint Abraham the Patriarch. Saint Paul seems to emphasise Abraham's faith on an intellectual level (Gal. 3:6; cf Gen. 15:6). Saint James, on the other hand, emphasises the necessity of action as a part of faith, saying plainly that Abraham was "justified by works" (James 2:20-24; cf Gen. 22), and that it was only in conncetion with his actions that it can be said that "Abraham believed God". The truth is, of course, that neither of these authors were contradicting each other, but both were saying the same thing using different language. When we read the other Scriptures that discuss Abraham, his faith, and his works, we see this to be true (cf Heb. 11:8-17; Gen. 26:5). What Saint Justin is speaking of, then, is the concept of an "effort of faith" (as Saint Paul put it: 1 Thes. 1:3; 2 Thes. 1:11).

Saint Justin lists fasting, prayer, love, meekness and humility, and patience and humility, as the other virtues or ascetic exertions which are necessary. [17] The Church's mission revolves around these virtues: the Church is to "infuse these God-human virtues and ascetic exertions into the people's way of living; to have their life and soul knit firm with the Christlike God-human virtues. For therein lies the soul's salvation..." [18] Through these means, and only through these means, will the Church change society and shine forth as the light of truth. The only way in which the Church can become "relevant to modern man," then, is exactly through following the God-inspired examples of the holy Fathers and Saints: by each person concentrating on ascetic exertions and cultivating the virtues. [19] This is why Saint Justin makes the startling claim that "Ascetics are Orthodoxy's only missionaries," and that "Asceticism is her only missionary school" [20]

What's more, Saint Justin makes another startling claim: he says that Orthodoxy "is brought about exclusively by this exertion of virtues by grace". [21] He means this, of course, within the framework mentioned earlier, including the affirmation that all the virtues and ascetic exertions come from and are possible because of God's grace alone. Still, it is amazingly bold to think about the ramifications of this claim that Saint Justin has made: for not only is Christ necessary (as head) for the Church to exist, but we too (the body) are necessary for the Church to exist. Our virtues--even if they have their origin and completion in God--are not only personal, but help to uphold the entire Church catholic. [22] Asceticism and virtue, therefore, is "the characteristic of Orthodoxy," and Orthodoxy recognizes no other life (in Christ) or rebirth than an ascetic, virtuous one. [23] As Saint Justin says elsewhere: "In the ascesis of the salvation of man, God reveals Himself by means of His saving powers through the holy mysteries, and man reveals himself in the ascesis of salvation through the holy virtues." [24]

Those who are in the Church, then, participating in God's uncreated grace, not only through the holy mysteries, but also through the virtues and ascetic exertions, "know Christ and Orthodoxy," and "just what it is that makes an Orthodox person Orthodox". [25] The purpose of this knowledge is so that one knows where and how to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). They know how through the virtues and ascetic exertions, they know where because they realise that it is in the prayerful, liturgical life of a local Orthodox parish that one grows in Christ. [26] Saint Justin lists one prerequisite, though: "our Bishops, priests, and our monks [must] become ascetics themselves," for "The parish must become an ascetical focal point. But this can only be achieved by an ascetic priest." [27] It is not just for a few saints here and there to be ascetics and virtuous, then, but we must all--laity, monks, and clergy--realise that we are all called to participate in the actual life of the Church through the God-given gifts the Church teaches us about.

[1] Saint Justin Popovich (translated by Asterios Gerostergios, et al.), Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, (Institute For Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1994), pp. 21-31
[2] Ibid., pp. 21-22
[3] Ibid., p. 22
[4] Ibid., p. 22
[5] James 1:17; cf John Cassian, Conferences, 3, 17; Conferences 13, 3; Institutes 12, 10
[6] Saint Justin, Orthodox Faith, p. 22
[7] Ibid., p. 23
[8] Ibid., p. 23
[9] Ibid., p. 24
[10] Ibid., p. 24
[11] For a more extensive look into this part of Saint Justin's ecclesiology, cf Saint Justin Popovich (translated by Benjamin Emmanuel Stanley), The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism, (Lazarica Press, 2000), pp. 32-33
[12] Ibid., p. 25
[13] Ibid., p. 26
[14] cf Saint Justin, Ecumenism, pp. 71-73
[15] Saint Justin, Orthodox Faith, p. 26; cf Saint Justin, Ecumenism, p. 73
[16] Saint Justin, Orthodox Faith, p. 26
[17] Ibid., pp. 26-28
[18] Ibid., p. 28; cf Saint Justin, Ecumenism, p. 22
[19] Saint Justin, Orthodox Faith, pp. 28-29
[20] Ibid., p. 30
[21] Ibid., p. 29
[22] Ibid., p. 29-30; Saint Justin discusses this bold assertion more thoroughly in his book The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism.
[23] Saint Justin, Orthodox Faith, p. 30
[24] Saint Justin, Ecumenism, pp. 73-74
[25] Saint Justin, Orthodox Faith, p. 30
[26] Ibid., pp. 30-31; cf Saint Justin, Ecumenism, pp. 61-62
[27] Saint Justin, Orthodox Faith, p. 31, 30


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Re:Ecclesiology and Asceticism in Saint Justin Popovich
« Reply #1 on: July 04, 2003, 07:18:50 PM »
Personally, Justin, I have the very highest regard, respect, and yes, even veneration, for St. Justin Popovich and his teachings.  But you're going to have to give this dyslexic old man with cataracts in both eyes some time to read thoroughly and digest the lengthy and obviously well-thought-out tome which you posted to get a meaningful reply from me.   :)