What follows is the text of a class from a series on Living the Christian Life in the World Today. This class was given on October 4, 2006 at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in McComb, MS
Tonight, I’d like for us to discuss the phronema of the Orthodox life. The “phronema” of the Orthodox Church refers to the outlook, or mindset, of the Church. The presuppositions we carry into situations, the way we conduct ourselves on a daily basis, these should be formed by the phronema of the Church. “How are we to live and think and do?”—this is the phronema of the Church. We don’t have a list of canon law that addresses every conceivable situation and gives the proper response—we live the life of the Church, the Christian life, and our responses are revealed to us by Christ in situation. So the phronema of the Church is the frame of mind of the Church. How we understand ourselves and our relationship to others and to God—these are all things formed within the mind of the Church. Which means that it’s the frame of mind that we should be striving to have in our life. In short, the mind of Christ.
So what is the phronema, the mind, the positioning, of the Church? Christ tells us that the greatest commandment is Love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Christ also tells us “God is love.” God created man as an outpouring of His Divine Love. He wanted to share Love, and all of creation comes as a result. Our calling in life is to be madly in love with God. This is outlook of the Orthodox Christian Church. This is the phronema of the Church—LOVE. And should be what each of us are striving for in our daily walk with Christ.
The greatest commandment is love, because if we love God with all of our being, then we won’t ever do anything that would hurt Him. Love of God keeps us from sin. Christ said “if you love Me, keep My commandments.” Our obedience to God, living a truly Christian life in the world, is based on our love of God. This is why we boil all the Tradition and Worship and Prayer and Phronema of the Church down to one word—LOVE. There is nothing greater than love—and true love, Christ-like sacrificial love, keeps us from all sin. If we had God’s love, God’s mind, we would never transgress, we would never fall short.
Our imperfect love of God grows and becomes more perfect as we continue to experience Him and draw closer to Him, primarily through the struggle to be like Him. Through obedience. Our love of God makes us do His will, and our struggle to do His will increases our love and devotion for God.
How does the struggle to do God’s will increase our love for Him? We’ll be talking about this throughout the next several weeks, but in a nutshell – as we do God’s will we see (by His grace) that what He wants for us is always the best for us. Not always what we want, but the best. He created us, He fulfills and sustains us, and His will for our lives is the ultimate for us. Our maximum potential, our maximum “success” and “happiness” come from being in communion with God. A communion that stems from being like Him. And we’re back to the same circle—we struggle to be like Him, and we increase in love for Him. Because what He wants is for us to fulfill what we were created to be.
So, how does this come down on a practical level? On the level on the title of this series of classes—Living the Christian Life. Acquiring the Christian Mindset. We see the mindset—Love. So how do we get in this circle of the struggle to be like God, and growing continually in our love for God? We engage the ascetic life of the Church.
In the Christian context, asceticism is striving to do the will of God. The call of the Christian life is so contrary to what the world is focused on, that simply trying to live a Christian life is an extreme form of asceticism in the modern world. There’s a wonderful saying from the lives of the Desert Fathers. A disciple asks his elder “what will those who come after us do?” The Fathers struggled in great asceticism, and they worked many miracles, and converted many to Christ. The elder said, “the ones who come after us will do half of what we do. And those that come after them will do half again what they do. And in the last times, all the Christians will do is believe, and they will be greater even than one who raises the dead.”
I don’t know if we’re to these last times, but it certainly seems that the struggle today is simply to live a Christian life. So how do go about doing that? We struggle to center ourselves in the mind of the Church. We strive to love. And on a human plane, these struggles to love God and to do His will at all times are what we call “the ascetic life.” The next several weeks we’ll specifically about Church Services and Liturgical Living, Prayer, Fasting, Confession… We’ll talk specifically about striving to love God, to grow to be like God, in these specific ways. Tonight it’s more of an introduction and general outlook on Christian Living. (and if there are topics related to this that I don’t have a plan to talk about but you would like to hear about, let me know and I’ll see about working them in—this teaching time together is for you)
The Christian life is an ascetic lifestyle. We can’t do everything we might want to do. We have another master. And this life is a continual struggle. Our passions, our sinful inclinations, pull us away from God. Adam, in the Garden, had only to love God and follow one rule. ONE! Yet he failed. He chose to do what he wanted to do, to do things his way. Then think about us…how many more distractions and struggles we have in our lives, how many more temptations. Christian life is difficult. And our struggle is to draw closer to God. Out of LOVE. We love God, and our desire is to give ourselves wholly to Him. We’re created to be perfect, but we’re not. So in the Christian life we’re really just trying to be what we were made to be. We’re trying to live as we were created to live. But we perceive this as an ascetic struggle because we’re caught in sin. The reality is, we’re doing what we were made to do—which is an uplifting and glorious life.
In His love for us, God gives us many ways to struggle against our sin. To be healed and reconciled to Him. Obviously we have the Sacramental life of the Church, and also the ascetic life of the Christian. So over the course of this series of classes we’ll look at how is fasting, or prayer, the ascetic life, healing? How exactly does fasting, for instance, make me more like Christ? How does it heal my sinful nature?
So in conclusion, the mind of the Church is love. God loves us. And we should love God. Unfortunately, loving God is often difficult for us. We get distracted by things that seem to have more immediacy for our lives. Our goal in the Christian life to love God. When, or if, we get caught up in the actions and forget that the goal is Christ, that’s how we end up in perverted understandings of God and Love and Asceticism.