The Recovery of Virtue
Ever since the Neo-patristic revival of the 20th century, pioneered by such greats as Fr George Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky to name but two, we have witnessed a recovery of the Orthodox teaching of salvation, commonly termed deification or theosis. Many people both inside and outside of the Orthodox Church are now aware of this and even Protestants, in some quarters, attempt to seize upon this "Eastern" legacy to talk about salvation in broader and more beautiful ways than the old Western doctrines with their legal and economic analogies.
However, and sadly, the same cannot be said for the Orthodox vision of ethics. People today still talk about Christian ethics, even in the Church, in ways that betray an almost complete unfamiliarity with the biblical and patristic understanding of virtue as a participation in the life of God. And so we are, in many ways, still kept under what Fr Florovsky termed ominously the "western captivity" of the Church.
Thankfully, we are beginning to have in English some valuable tools at our disposal to remedy this situation. Apart from the plethora of patristic texts that have been translated in the past decades we also have some valuable syntheses of the Orthodox ethical vision. But, as has happened with the Orthodox vision of salvation, our ethical vision and spiritual theology must trickle down into our preaching, our spiritual guidance, and into our popular literature, podcasts, etc. Because, quite simply, if we do not communicate a vision of the beauty and power of Christian virtue and how it is attained in Christian praxis, leading to theosis, some other praxis will inevitably take its place, be that mere moralism or the pop psychology.
Let's take, for example, the situation we face in our culture with its changing attitudes regarding sexuality. Many people, seeing this seismic shift, worry that we are losing - or have already lost - the biblical and traditional teaching of the Church and wonder what can be done. Wringing our hands while lamenting how much times have changed, however, is not a response. What is needed is a recovery of the virtue of chastity. Not only the practice of chastity, which goes without saying, but a vigorous, healthy, and positive statement of chastity as virtue, i.e. power and participation in the energies of God. When chastity becomes only a negative – what I am NOT doing – it becomes merely a prohibition, descends into moralism, and the virtue of chastity is robbed of its beauty and power.
The same can be said of Christian poverty, fasting, and obedience, among others. These are too often treated as primarily monastic virtues or ideals, concerned with things that monastics "give up", and that, therefore, have nothing to say to lay Christians living in the world. But all Christians, not only monastics, are called to keep the commandments of Christ. These commandments, it is true, often involve a "giving up" or abstaining from something, for example, sexual activity that is not blessed, food or drink for a period of time, unnecessary acquisition of money or things, and, most especially, our passionate desires for the things of this world. Ultimately, however, all of this "giving up" has as its aim the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is, then, a giving up of worldly things in order to acquire that which belongs to God and which God desires to grow within us. For virtue is nothing less than the very grace and power and beauty of God having become our own: it is to possess God.
With love in Christ, Fr John
“Give me a word!”
By the constant shunning of evil and fulfilling of the Gospel virtues—which comprises the whole Gospel moral teaching—we attain the love of God. And by this same means do we abide in the love of God: If ye keep My commandments, ye shall abide in My love said the Savior (John 15:10).
+St Ignatii Brianchinov
Just as soul and body combine to produce a human being, so practice of the virtues and contemplation together constitute a unique spiritual wisdom, as the Old and New Testament together form a single mystery.
+St Maximos the Confessor
We should prefer to have a little of all the virtues rather than one virtue to perfection, because in this way one’s nous, will and desire are purified. The soul acts in the whole body, so man needs to be wholly cleansed.
-Elder Sophrony (Sakharov)
All material wealth is the same, but is acquired in many different ways; similarly, virtue is one, but is many-sided in its operations.
+St Mark the Ascetic
Without chastity love is not affection but selfishness and passion.
+St Nikolai Velimirovich