The Struggle For Virtue by Archbishop Averky of ROCOR came to me in two ways. First, by an online suggestion that was strong enough for me to order it. Second, by a monk who gifted it to me directly. I’m skeptical of believing in coincidences so I came to conclude that this was an important book for me to read.
Christianity is asceticism
Asceticism is something so closely bound up with the spiritual life that without it spiritual life is simply inconceivable. It is, so to speak, the primary instrument of spiritual life. It is by no means an end in and of itself, but only a means; nonetheless, it is an absolutely necessary means for success in spiritual life.
It is clear that everyone, if he desires to save himself from this oppressing power of evil, must enter the path of the spiritual life—that is, to become an ascetic struggler to some extent. One who avoids this is doomed to perdition.
The human soul, being divine in origin, always aspires towards God. It cannot find full satisfaction in anything earthly and, suffering severely in its alienation from God, it can find rest only in God. The human soul can attain this salvific communion with God only through the fulfillment of the commandment of love for God and neighbor. The commandments of love for God and neighbor can be fulfilled only through the uprooting of the “law of sin” living in us—evil habits and evil dispositions of soul—and through the planting in their place of good habits and good dispositions of soul. This does not happen without fierce battle or struggle. It is precisely this battle of struggle that is the essence of asceticism, which makes possible man’s success in the spiritual life—that, in drawing near to God and entered into communion with God, for which the human spirit longs.
Asceticism is the one sure path to the alluring lighthouse of happiness which all people seek. Happiness, as life experience shows, is not outside of a man, where he mistakenly looks for it, but inside. Happiness lies in a peaceful state of soul, in serenity and internal calm, which come from internal satisfaction following victory over evil and the eradication of bad habits that tyrannize the soul. Sinful habits create chaos and disarray. Evil inclinations cannot be peaceful, calm and joyful. The only way to pacify the soul is by suppressing and eradicating bad habits through asceticism, an ascetic way of life.
Asceticism is not only for monks but for all Christians on the path to salvation. The teachings of scripture are clear on the matter:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
“If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:19)
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24)
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2)
The “prosperity gospel,” a central tenet of some churches in the West, is therefore in flagrant opposition with Biblical teachings, which lay out a clear path for Christians to deny themselves the pleasures and attachments of this world to prepare for the Kingdom to come. You don’t have an excuse to forgo this path just because you live in a city or happen to be married—all are called to pick up and carry their cross of faith and tribulation, not a warm blanket of pleasure and comfort.
Performing good works
The greater our good works, and the more often we perform them, the easier it becomes to overcome evil habits: they are weakened by the increased frequency of our good words and are less able to counteract our good will—which, to the contrary, is increasingly strengthened by good works. An obvious conclusion can be drawn from this: he who desires success in the spiritual life must by all possible means force himself to perform good works as often as varied as possible.
…the main thing is not works but man’s inner disposition, the good or evil will of his soul and the virtuous or depraved condition of his heart, from which good or evil works are born naturally.
…for the true ascetic, it is far from sufficient only to refrain from evil works and only to perform good works: the true ascetic strives to uproot from his soul evil dispositions, evil habits, and evil will, and in their place to plant and firmly inculcate good dispositions, good habits, and good will.
Without faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, there is no Christianity. Performing good deeds out of some unknown motivation cannot be equated with Christianity. How can it be Christianity, when Christ Himself taught that the first and greatest commandment is love for God? This understandably includes faith in Him, for how can we love someone whose existence we deny? Without love for God and faith in Him, no really authentic good deeds are possible, nor is any true morality possible.
It is not in and of themselves that good deeds have meaning, nor is it the personal effort of doing good that saves man; what saves him is the earnestness with which his will is directed towards good. In forcing himself to do good, one shows that his will seeks virtue. This is what attracts the all-powerful grace of God which, conjoined with one’s personal effort, makes him a victor over evil in his own soul, which is the ultimate purpose of unseen warfare.
It’s unfortunate that so many modern Christians have put faith and works in opposition, as if they are mutually exclusive. In my life they have co-worked in a synergistic fashion: when my faith grows, I desire to perform more works, and when I perform more works, I put more faith in God. I would be skeptical of anyone who proclaims faith but does not perform works.
Pride is weakness
…a humble person is not weak, but actually strong, because God’s power manifests itself and acts through him; the proud man is weak, for he rejects God’s all-powerful grace and is left with only his human powers, which are, of course, immeasurably weaker and less significant than God’s all-powerful grace. Therefore, pride always sooner or later disgraces itself, and the proud man falls, perishing with all his self-confidence, plans, and calculations.
When I look at the personal accomplishments I made during the height of my pride and personal strength, they give me absolutely nothing today. The books I wrote… gone. The girls I slept with… forgotten. The innumerable cities I’ve been to… a blur. Upon repentance I essentially had to start life all over. My first book as a Christian, American Pilgrim, feels like the first book I’ve ever written, and none of the “game” I valued in my past is useful in discerning whether a Christian woman I meet is suitable for marriage. Anything I’ve learned through my own pride had to be unlearned when I began to live with Christ.
Criticism of Catholicism
The western world with Rome reigning at its head, before which all the nations of the world once trembled, demonstrated that it was incapable of properly assimilating and absorbing the spirit of Christian humility; pagan pride, love of authority, and the unquenchable thirst to rule and command continue to live even in Christian Rome, which had adopted the teaching of Christ superficially and shallowly. This spirit of pagan pride expressed itself in the pretensions of the Roman patriarchy-pope to rule the entire Christian world. The pope continue the tradition of the pagan emperors of Rome, becoming as it were a successor to their politics of subjecting all nations under them. They forgot Christ’s testimony to His Apostles: “Whosoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant” (Matt 20:26).
Needs of the spirit
How does the spirit reveal itself in a person? St. Theophan indicates three manifestations of the Spirit: (1) the fear of God, (2) the conscience, and (3) the thirst for God: “All people, no matter what degree of development they have reached, know that there is a Supreme Being, God, Who created everything, maintains everything and rules everything, and that they depend on Him in everything that they must please Him, that He is the Judge and Requiter, Who gives to everyone according to his deeds.
The conscience is the legislator, the guardian of the law, the judge, and the executor.” It is no coincidence that the people call the conscience “the voice of God.”
It is the property of the spirit to seek God, to strive towards Him, to thirst for Him. Nothing created, earthly, worldly can ever satisfy it. No matter how many good things a person has, it will never seem enough, he will always want more and more. This eternal lack of fulfillment, this constant dissatisfaction proves that our spirit strives towards something Higher, the Ideal, as they say. Therefore, nothing earthly can replace this Higher Being, this Ideal. The soul is restless, finding no peace. Only in God, in living communion with Him, can a person find total satisfaction and rest, having obtained grace-filled peace of soul and calmness.
…no matter how much a person suppresses within himself the needs of the spirit, these needs will demand their rights. The spirit yearns for God and, unable to find a means of escape for its aspirations under the violent pressure of the crude oppression of human pride, the spirit satisfies itself by substitutes, which are invented by the same human pride in order to calm it. In place of authentic religion, the spirit is given some nebulous philosophical teaching, or theosophy, or spiritualism. In place of the Church, it is offered the “template” of science, or the theater, ballet, etc.—anything from worldly life, capable of fully captivating the person.
I confess that I still seek fulfillment from worldly things. One example is through cooking. Starting in the spring of 2020, I’ve dedicated myself to making the perfect Italian pizza pie. I’ve spent many hours educating myself via YouTube tutorials and cooking blogs. I’ve tested many different kinds of flours and ingredients to bake well over 100 pizzas, even dessert pizzas. My craft has culminated in large dinner parties where, on one night, I made 16 pizzas. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard someone say, “This is the best pizza I’ve ever had!” With such a compliment, there is nowhere else to go. Sure, I can grow my own tomatoes and even my own mozzarella cheese upon procuring a cow, but ultimately my soul will never be fulfilled by making pizza.
It’s no surprise that after my biggest pizza party, I started looking for new hobbies. I could hop from one hobby to the next knowing that they will never give everlasting satisfaction. If a hobby doesn’t grow my faith, aid my neighbor, or allow me to engage in Christian fellowship, I’m not sure if it’s worth doing.
Don’t let the world take you
All of modern entertainment acts like cocaine and alcohol on our contemporaries. Contemporary entertainment puts spiritual life to sleep in man, paralyzes spiritual impulses, and suppresses the voice of the conscience and of moral norms. Little by little, a person descends from the natural to gross carnality, becoming like a body without a soul according to the words of the Psalmist, “I was so foolish and ignorant: I was like a beast before you” (Ps 72:22).
When a person created in the image and likeness of God renounces his high calling and becomes a soulless body, he becomes like a brute beast and pronounces upon himself his own death sentence.
A man’s spiritual state will match what he subjects his eyes and ears to. If he consumes mindless TikTok and hip-hop videos, we know where his heart lies. If he consumes self-help materials in order to increase his status before other people, we know that he has made gods of things in this world. Even the news is dangerous: it’s designed to make people anxious and upset so that they keep watching more news in the hope of receiving a positive feeling.
My aim is to listen to music that makes me think of God—Orthodox hymns and classical. I temper my intake of news (though sometimes not) and try to read spiritual articles and books. I listen to Orthodox podcasts and sermons. While most content on the internet seems to be made for evil, you can find enough Christian sources to completely replace all that is secular.
Fear God, but don’t be motivated by fear alone
The Gospel indeed speaks of rewards that await the righteous and punishments that will befall unrepentant sinners. However, nowhere are these rewards and punishments offered as the main, exclusive motivation for a Christian. In fact, these rewards and punishments are not the motivation but the natural end result of one’s lifestyle. Christ explains that the narrow and sorrowful path of life preached by Him has as its natural end eternal joy, while the broad and easy path, counter to the Gospel, culminates in eternal grief, eternal torment. These are not incentives, not external pedagogical methods to force a person to act in a certain way. They are the natural results of a chosen lifestyle, which He warns against and makes abundantly clear.
It’s natural to fear hell, as you very well should, but it should not be your sole motivation for serving God. I am increasingly motivated by my love for Him, thanks to knowing His immense love for me, than severe punishment for breaking the rules. Like a child wants to please his parent, I want to please God by following His commandments.
Listen to your conscience
A person may disdain [God’s voice], ignore it, and treat it as insignificant, but it will continue to speak within his soul. Sooner or later, in this life, or in full measure in the next, the conscience will present itself in its full power as the harsh and merciless judge of man, the judge of all his actions, thoughts, feelings and experiences which he self-indulgently allowed himself.
It is impossible to kill the conscience, but it can be numbed, smothered and lulled to sleep. The Holy Fathers teach us that this happens through willful sin. “Every sin,” says St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), “Leaves a harmful impression on the conscience. A constant willfully sinful life as it were, mortifies it.”
The cutting edge of the conscience is very delicate. It must be carefully preserved. If a man transgresses its dictates through weakness or passion, he must shed tears of repentance.” Even minor things are significant. “From those small things we also come to despise the great ones,” says Abba Dorotheos. “When someone begins to say, ‘What does it matter if I say that word, eat that little morsel, feast my eyes on that?’ he falls into bad habits and runs the risk of gradually falling into insensibility. For both virtues and vices start from slight things and lead to greater ones, either good or bad.”
Even the smallest of sins, like a white lie, can be detrimental to your soul, because when you commit a little sin, you are actually training yourself to take on a sin that is slightly bigger. For example, it’s common that I want to read a news story but cannot because of a paywall. I know many ways to get around a paywall, but lately I’ve been allowing the paywall to stymy my efforts to read an article. A private corporation owns content and has dictated that they don’t want a person to read more than so-and-so pieces per month. Their property, their rules. The “crime” of circumventing a paywall will never be prosecuted, but what comes after that? You will steal other content, perhaps download torrented movies or software. It’s not so much going around the paywall that you should be concerned about, but what you will desensitize your conscience into doing after that.
When you consider a harlot who sells pornographic images of herself online, she got there through a gradual process involving a multitude of decisions that trained her mind to ignore cries from her conscience about committing sins of pride and lust. If you’re not ready to tackle the tiny sins, which in some cases you can avoid on willpower alone, you will certainly fall to the big ones where willpower is no longer sufficient to resist.
The mask of evil
In human hearts, evil is taking the upper hand. Evil in our time rarely manifests itself openly, in a repugnant way. As time passes, it gets better at masquerading itself in the guise of good. Often overlooked by many is the fact that those who committed crimes in the past usually understood that they were committing evil and would often repent and try to correct their wrongdoing. In contrast, the majority of our contemporaries have lost the very concept of evil. While committing evil, they do so cold-bloodedly and without emotion.
How can you repent if you don’t even know you committed evil? If you don’t even know the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes? If you muted your conscience from a pornography habit that started as a teenager? Satan wants to condemn souls, and one way he does that is to delay or block repentance. Disguising evil as good is an ingenious way to do that, though many of us have seen through the tricks and repented anyway. I wonder if Satan is thinking of a new way to block repentance, perhaps by a genetic method that injects people with “vaccines” that knock out critical genes necessary for normal human functioning. We may live long enough to see.
Bread and circuses
…the epoch that we are now living in reminds us of the epoch of the Roman Empire just before the birth of Christ, when the rallying cry of the masses was “bread and circuses!” The only difference is in the fact that ordinary bread and simple, primitive entertainment will not please anyone anymore. Now, man’s refined lust demands something more reined. Bread must be specially baked and served as an accompaniment to other gourmet dishes, which are prepared according to the dictates of the art of gastronomy—or rather, gluttony. Entertainment must likewise be refined and masquerade as art, while exciting the basest, animalistic desires of man’s nature.
I can’t help but be reminded of my obsession with making authentic Italian pizza to titillate the palates of my guests.
Freedom from sin
Instead of freedom from sin, people began to strive for freedom to sin. True freedom, freedom of spirit, Christian freedom came to be considered “despotism,” “coercion,” the oppression of the Church, while the dissipation of one’s sinful will, which leads to enslavement of the spirit, was made life’s ideal.
Only that person who in Christ has freed himself from oppressive slavery to sin and has unwaveringly chosen the bright path of a pure and virtuous Christian life is happy and joyful. And all who continue to wallow in sin and who through their sins are languishing and suffering as slaves to the devil are deeply unhappy, for they cannot find moral satisfaction, which is the only thing that can give a man happiness in life.
Some may think that they do not rely upon themselves and that they place all of their hope in God. But when they fall into some sort of sin, they despair and come into a melancholy and dismal state of soul. This excessive, dismal sorrow is a sign that they hoped not in God but in themselves, and therefore this betrayal of their self-assurance through their fall is particularly difficult and torturous, and it brings them into despair. But the one who does not rely upon himself, upon his own powers, will not be particularly surprised by a fall and will not overwhelmed with excessive sorrow; he knows and understands that this happened because of his weakness and that nothing good can be expected of him. Such a man humbly admits his weakness, his helplessness, and, therefore, instead of giving himself over to extreme sorrow, he hastens to God, pouring out in prayer before Him his repentant feelings, hastens to repent before God of his sin as soon as possible, with his whole heart, and to continue to battle with unseen enemies and with the evil living in his soul—he hastens into unseen warfare.
I am prone to falling into despair after committing a moderate sin because I want to believe I’m “growing” and “past that,” purely secular notions. The reality is that I have come into the existence after the Fall. The environment is such that my impulse is to commit sin and distance myself from God. It is demonic to beat yourself up over everything and think there is no hope for your salvation.
I’ve since adopted a healthier approach in the aftermath of committing a sin: prayer. Ultimately, it’s up to God based on the labor and will I put into the matter that determines when or if I will overcome a sin. In fact, it’s even up to God if I will merely see sin as sin.
Why is distraction so harmful? It is quite obvious: a distracted person is not capable of being vigilant in regard to himself. He is constantly preoccupied with things outside of himself. How can he observe his own heart when the main object of his attention is not his inner life by the events of the outside world? He is not concerned with reducing the influx of external impressions but, on the contrary, lives entirely for those external impressions. His inner life interests him little or not at all: his greatest interest is the external life, the life of the surrounding world, and thus he gives free rein to his sense. To see, hear, smell, feel, and taste everything is what her perceives as the meaning and purpose of his life. His soul is like an easily accessible highway. A whirlwind of impressions follow one after another as in a kaleidoscope, and he completely immerses himself in the thoughts, feelings, and desires that they generate. How can he monitor his heart and guard it from pollution by the vileness and crudity of this world, which lies in evil?
I shut my phone off when I go to bed. I only turn it on when a good chunk of my workday is complete. When not using it during the day, I put it in silent mode. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to write articles like this. Perhaps I wouldn’t even be able to pray. I notice that most people don’t take these types of efforts to block out the effects of their “slot machine” device that is always ready to serve a new prize that causes distractions.
How to fight evil
When a gentle word of persuasion has no effect, when people are so steeped in evil that they do not yield to any admonishment and continue doing evil, a Christian cannot and should not take refuge in this teaching of the forgiveness of all, sit indifferently with his arms crossed, and apathetically watch as evil abuses good, as it increases and destroys people, his close ones. To indifferently watch the ruin of a close one by one who has lost his sense and become a bearer of evil is nothing other than the breaking of the commandment of love for one’s neighbor. Every type of such evil should be immediately thwarted with the most decisive measures, even including the sacrifice of oneself in an unequal struggle.
…our battle with people who have become bearers of evil should have the purpose of the suppression of the evil that is performed by them and should in no way be vindictive. The right for vengeance belongs to God, Who is the One, Righteous Judge Who Knows everyone’s heart.
A Christian should fight every type of evil wherever it appears, but this battle with evil should, in the first place, be a battle in his own soul. The battle with evil should begin with oneself, and only then will it be correct, reasonable, and sound. One who has fought and rooted out evil in his own soul will much more easily wage a battle with evil in the souls of other people; and the less evil remains in the soul of the solider of Christ, the more successful this battle will be. This great truth has been completely forgotten by contemporary people who have turned away from Christianity and think that they can benefit humanity by persecuting and harassing others for things that they perceive to be evil, but which many not necessarily be so, all the while themselves remaining evil in their own souls.
When I meet a Christian man and one of the first things he says to me is, “Christ overturned the tables of the moneychangers! He said to carry a sword!”; I know that he had already decided to be violent, and is trying to pour his will into the Gospel to justify it. There is such a thing as righteous force, but outside the realm of self-defense, it’s best to receive the blessing of your spiritual elders (or merely consult with them) before enacting a plan that is probably more about trying to wrestle away some of Satan’s worldly power than defeating evil without passion.
…the essence of unseen warfare is in a persistent battle with the spirit of self-assertive human pride and all its offspring-various passions and vices. As this battle is extremely difficult, it is impossible to rely only upon one’s human powers; essential also is supernatural Divine help, the power of God’s grace that, as we know is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). Therefore, the Holy Fathers say that he who desires to be victorious in unseen warfare must establish the following four dispositions or inclinations in his heart: (1) never in any way rely on yourself; (2) always have in your heart complete, resolute hope in the One God; (3) work unceasingly; and (4) always be in prayer.
…it is not spiritual struggle that liberates a Christian from the rule of the passions: it is the right hand of the Most High that liberates him, the grace of the Holy Spirit. But be that as it may, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given not otherwise than in response to man’s personal effort, personal spiritual struggle. This is why Christ the Saviour says, Strive to enter through the narrow gate (Luke 13:24).
God didn’t intend us to be passive beings that simply sit around and only pray before awaiting a miracle. We’re creatures that are able to labor so we must labor for the good, and the more effort we put in using our own will, the more likely God will then lend us a hand to complete the task.
In the Gospel, Christ multiplied the bread instead of creating it from thin air, which He could have easily done. He asked the Apostles how many loaves they had on hand and worked with that to feed the multitude. Even if the “labor” in this example is minor, the message is clear: we must do some work before we expect God to do any.
Spiritual warfare is no different. If we don’t have a daily prayer rule, if we don’t receive communion, if we don’t fast, if we don’t read the scripture, how much of a hand is God going to give us against the demons that are attempting to take our soul? Do as much as you can do, under the guidance of God, and when you can do no more, beg God for help.
The consequence of feeding your passions
All of the Holy Fathers, teaching on the spiritual life, with one voice agree that the root and source of all the passions is egoism or self-love, that is, unreasonable, wrongful love towards oneself. Egoism or self-love gives rise to three principal passions the three fundament roots of all the other passions: love of pleasure, greed, and love of glory. These three principal passions are enumerated in the Holy Scripture by the Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian who says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world… For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:15-16). From these three principal passions in turn come the following eight passions: (1) gluttony, (2) fornication, (3) avarice, (4) anger, (5) sorrow, (6) despair, (7) vainglory, and (8) pride. These eight passions engender yet more and more passions which then branch out into a multitude of diverse and subtle variations of each of these principal passions. All of these innumerable passions tyrannize and torment the human heart, never giving a person rest and causing him unbearable suffering, from which he loses spiritual peace, inner balance, and tranquility of conscience. He feels deeply unhappy, sometimes experiencing truly hellish torment, as if experiencing the onset of those torments that inevitably await all unrepentant sinners…
I used to think that the old me was only committing the sins of fornication and lust. And then I realized I also had a lot of pride, and also continual anger, and sometimes wrath, and even gluttony. It turns out that when I was at my worst, it may be easier to identify which sins I didn’t commit. Within each person there will be a sin or two that is predominant, but if you’re willfully and eagerly committing one sin, chances are you’re committing many more, and will need to fully repent before even beginning to heal.
Overall, The Struggle For Virtue by Archbishop Averky was a short but powerful book that helped summarize all the disparate Orthodox teachings I have encountered in various articles and sermons. While perhaps too potent for beginners, it should be on the list for every Christian who recognizes that the most rational solution in response to living in the evil modern world is to detach oneself from it through a life of repentance, asceticism, and faith.