Love as the Essence of Orthodox Asceticism

Protopresbyter Georgios Schinas


You might ask why it is that we today, who are less ascetic as Christians, are overcome with fear and trembling when we hear about asceticism. It makes us feel somewhat uncomfortable. This is because we’ve lost sight of a great truth of our faith. It’s summed up by Saint John of the Ladder: ‘love is conquered by love’*.

What is it that binds us to our passions? We’ve fallen in love with them! In our fall, in our malice, we’ve fallen in love with them and embrace them tightly. We love our passions fervently: our gluttony, our debauchery, our pride, our egotism, our vanity and all the rest.

How can we be cured of this? Only with commandments of a legal order? You shouldn’t be a glutton; you shouldn’t be a slave to your belly; you shouldn’t be debauched; you shouldn’t be proud. That’s all very well, but I have the feeling that that’s not enough to fill people with the noble intent of casting off these passions.

So, along comes Saint John of the Ladder and he tells us that in order for us to stop having these strong feelings for earthly passions, we need to have in our heart something we love even more fervently. Then, suddenly, our ascetic struggle isn’t merely the avoidance of certain passions. It’s not even, we might say, the imitation of certain good actions, certain virtues. Rather, our ascetic struggle changes on the inside and it’s no longer quite so ‘obvious’ what it’s all about.

Our ascetic struggle, I’d say, begins to resemble the effort people make when they’ve fallen in love- to approach the object of their affections. There’s nothing scandalous about using this example. Say a man falls in love with a woman. What does he do? He walks round and round her house, goes and talks to her. Timely or untimely, he basically besieges her. This is precisely what our struggle becomes, when we do it out of love. Out of fervent love and generous gratitude for Christ.

Our struggle then acquires a dynamic character. It’s no longer merely doing good and abstaining from wickedness, it’s more than that: an attempt on the part of our soul to besiege Christ, to draw Him into it, to enthrone Him in our heart. And it’s this that changes our outlook.

Imagine somebody telling you: ‘Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that’. This provokes a spontaneous reaction and often makes us do exactly the opposite of what we’ve been told. But if somebody you love comes and says: ‘If you love me, don’t upset me. Do that, please’, your mood changes straight away. This is the truth that Saint John of the Ladder tells us. This is the truth that our Lord, Jesus Christ, tells us, in different words: in the Gospel of Saint John, He says: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’. So, love for His Person will defeat the false loves which draw us away from the path of His commandments. This is how we Christians must live our asceticism: we must live our spiritual efforts as a struggle for love. A struggle for love!

This is why the ascetics of our Church aren’t anything like idiosyncratic people, like ‘weird’ people. The ascetics of the Orthodox Church are perfectly normal. Why? Because basically they’re people of love. They’re lovable and loving. They’re people who love and from this overflowing of the heart, this love for Christ, they dedicate themselves to even greater efforts, greater asceticism, a more intense siege of Christ. May we, also, besiege Christ in this frame of mind.

*The word for love that Saint John uses for ‘love’ here is ‘eros’, which does not necessarily have the sexual connotations of its English derivative ‘erotic’. A better translation would be ‘passionate love’, though this would not be appropriate here, since we have to use this love to conquer the passions! [WJL].





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OCN has partnered with Pemptousia. A Contemporary post-modern man does not understand what man is.  Through its presence in the internet world, Pemptousia, with its spirit of respect for beauty that characterizes it, wishes to contribute to the presentation of a better meaning of life for man, to the search for the ontological dimension of man, and to the awareness of the unfathomable mystery of man who is always in Christ in the process of becoming, of man who is in the image of divine beauty. And the beauty of man springs from the beauty of the Triune God. In the end, “beauty will save the world”.


Pemptousia Partnership

Pemptousia and OCN have entered a strategic partnership to bring Orthodoxy Worldwide. Greek philosophers from Ionia considered held that there were four elements or essences (ousies) in nature: earth, water, fire and air. Aristotle added ether to this foursome, which would make it the fifth (pempto) essence, pemptousia, or quintessence. The incarnation of God the Word found fertile ground in man’s proclivity to beauty, to goodness, to truth and to the eternal. Orthodoxy has not functioned as some religion or sect. It was not the movement of the human spirit towards God but the revelation of the true God, Jesus Christ, to man. A basic precept of Orthodoxy is that of the person ­– the personhood of God and of man. Orthodoxy is not a religious philosophy or way of thinking but revelation and life standing on the foundations of divine experience; it is the transcendence of the created and the intimacy of the Uncreated. Orthodox theology is drawn to genuine beauty; it is the theology of the One “fairer than the sons of men”. So in "Pemptousia", we just want to declare this "fifth essence", the divine beaut in our life. Please note, not all Pemptousia articles have bylines. If the author is known, he or she is listed in the article above.


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